ORLANDO, Fla. —The prosecutor in the case of three former band members charged with manslaughter in the hazing death of a Florida A&M University drum major told jurors Tuesday that all of those involved—even the victim—participated in a brutal act they knew was illegal.
State attorney Jeff Ashton said during his opening statement that evidence will prove that Robert Champion, 26, willingly submitted to the tradition-filled beating that caused his death in November 2011 in an effort to gain respect within the band. But Ashton also said that does not absolve any of the band members who participated.
“Some might say tradition killed Robert Champion, and there’s some truth to that,” Ashton said. “The tradition goes back as far as anyone can remember. It involves brutal violence from one band member to another.
“He wanted to be accepted, and it cost him his life.”
Defense attorneys said there was no conspiracy at all and that the prosecution couldn’t prove any of the three was directly responsible for killing Champion.
The final three former band members charged with manslaughter and felony hazing in the November 2011 incident—24-year-old Benjamin McNamee, 22-year-old Aaron Golson and 28-year-old Darryl Cearnel—are being tried together. If convicted, they each face 15 years in prison.
Earlier Tuesday four men and four women were selected to serve as jurors. Six will constitute the main jury, with the other two serving as alternates.
“This is not a situation where they knew what they were doing was significant,” said attorney Michael Dicembre, who is representing McNamee.
Golson’s attorney, Craig Brown, also said there was no conspiracy.
“They did not get together, they did not conspire to get on a bus to cause the death of Mr. Champion,” Brown said. “A tragedy is a tragedy no matter how it happens. But not every tragedy is a crime.”
Champion’s beating death aboard a band bus parked outside a hotel after a football game exposed a culture of hazing within the school’s famed band. Champion, of Decatur, Georgia, went through what Ashton described as a three-step process that culminated with him running a gauntlet and being punched, kicked and struck with band instruments.
A total of 15 former band members were charged with manslaughter in the case. Several took plea deals and received combinations of probation and community service. The band itself was suspended for more than a year while officials tried to clean up the program.
Dante Martin, 27, became the first former band member to get prison time in Champion’s death. He was convicted by a jury of manslaughter and felony hazing in October. He received more than six years in state prison. Another former band member, Jessie Baskin, served one year in county jail.
Champion’s parents have attended all of the previous proceedings and were in the courtroom as opening statements began Tuesday. They have a wrongful death lawsuit pending against the university after settling with the charter bus company.