Thirteen people were charged Wednesday in one of the biggest college hazing cases ever prosecuted in the U.S., accused in the death of a Florida A&M University drum major who authorities say was mercilessly pummeled by fellow members of the marching band.
The charges came more than five months after Robert Champion, 26, died aboard a chartered bus parked outside an Orlando hotel following a performance against a rival school.
The most sensational cases of hazing —or endurance rituals to which prospective members of an organization are subjected — have typically involved fraternities, sororities or athletic teams, but the FAMU tragedy in November exposed a brutal tradition among marching bands at a number of colleges around the U.S.
"The death ... is nothing short of an American tragedy," said State Attorney Lawson Lamar. "No one should have expected that his college experience would include being pummeled to death."
Champion's death has jeopardized the future of FAMU's legendary marching band, which has performed at the Grammys, presidential inaugurations and Super Bowls and represented the U.S. in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. FAMU, based in Tallahassee, has suspended the band and set up a task force on curtailing hazing.
Eleven defendants were charged with hazing resulting in death, a felony, and misdemeanor charges that all together could bring nearly six years in prison. Two others face misdemeanor charges.
It was not immediately clear whether those charged were all students or whether they included faculty members or others involved in the road trip.
Their names were being withheld until all of them were arrested. By Wednesday afternoon, two were in custody.
Champion had bruises on his chest, arms, shoulder and back and died of internal bleeding, Lamar said. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers Champion was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus.
Legal experts had predicted more serious charges, such as manslaughter or second-degree murder.
Champion's mother, Pam, said she was glad charges were brought but disappointed they weren't more serious. "I thought it should send a harsher message," she said.
Lamar said prosecutors didn't have the evidence to bring more severe charges.
"The testimony obtained to date does not support a charge of murder, in that it does not contain the elements of murder," he said. "We can prove participation in hazing and a death. We do not have a blow or a shot or a knife thrust that killed Mr. Champion. It is an aggregation of things which exactly fit the Florida statute as written by the Legislature."
Hazing in Florida was upgraded to a felony in 2005 following the death of a University of Miami student four years earlier. Chad Meredith was drunk and died trying to swim across a lake at the behest of his fraternity brothers. No charges were filed, but a civil jury ordered the fraternity to pay Meredith's parents $12 million.
Hazing has long been practiced in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges like FAMU in the South, where the band is often as revered as the football team and members are campus celebrities.
Much of the hazing reported at FAMU has involved students trying to get into certain groups within the band, and typically included punching, slapping and paddling.
Witnesses in the Champion case said he might have been targeted because he opposed the hazing or because he was gay, according to an attorney for his parents.
Solomon Badger, chairman of the FAMU board of trustees, said the school is doing everything it can to eradicate hazing. He said of the charges: "I hope this wraps its arm around everything we have been plagued with the last six months."
Richard Sigal, a retired sociology professor at the County College of Morris in Randolph, New Jersey, who holds anti-hazing workshops at schools, said he could not recall another hazing case with so many defendants. Most cases don't result in criminal charges, and those that do typically end in plea bargains with little or no jail time, Sigal said.
Champion's parents have sued the bus company owner, claiming the driver stood guard outside while the hazing took place. The company said the driver was helping band members with their equipment.