BY STEPHEN HUDAK
ORLANDO SENTINEL / MCT
Former Florida A&M University band member Brian Jones pleaded no contest in Orlando Tuesday morning to felony hazing in the death of drum major Robert Champion.
Jones, who will turn 24 later this month, is the first of the 12 band members charged in Champion’s beating death to withdraw a “not guilty” plea. The others are set for trial next year.
Champion, 26, died Nov. 19 after a hazing aboard a charter bus parked outside the Rosen Plaza hotel where the school’s famed Marching 100 was staying. The band was in Orlando for the Florida Classic, the annual rivalry game at the Citrus Bowl between FAMU and Bethune-Cookman University.
‘Crossing Bus C’
According to fellow drum major Keon Hollis, Champion’s friend and his roommate during the Florida Classic, Champion reluctantly participated in a ritual known as “Crossing Bus C” – the percussion bus. The hazing required Champion to push his way from the front of the bus to the back while enduring an onslaught of physical abuse from band mates.
Hollis, who submitted to the ritual before Champion, said they hoped to earn the percussion section’s respect.
Champion’s parents have sued the university; the bus company, Fabulous Coach Lines; and the bus driver, Wendy Mellette; alleging negligence in the wrongful-death of their son. The university has asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit. FAMU contends Champion “knowingly and voluntarily” participated in a felony act prohibited by university rules.
Circuit Judge Marc Lubet accepted Jones’ plea but did not pronounce Jones guilty. Lubet set sentencing for Oct. 22 to allow Champion’s parents to attend.
“You’ll never make it right with them,” the judge told Jones, “but do everything in your power to try.”
Jones, who did not respond to questions as he left the courtroom, faces up to five years in prison and a possible $5,000 fine. A percussionist and criminal justice major from Parrish, near Tampa, Jones was accompanied by his mother, Jacquelin Jones, as he faced the judge.
According to documents released by prosecutors earlier this year, fellow band member Benjamin McNamee, who also is charged with felony hazing in Champion’s death, told investigators that he recalled Jones “basically” holding Champion in a bear hug. McNamee also told detectives that he tried to free the drum major from Jones’ grasp.
Cut a deal
The change of plea occurred after a 28-minute private huddle in the courtroom with the judge, Assistant State Attorney Nicole Pegues and defense lawyer Alisia Mary Adamson. The lawyers would not comment about the discussion that was, at times, animated – with the judge doing most of the talking.
After a recess, Lubet called the death of Champion “a tragic set of events.” The judge also labeled Jones’ participation in the hazing as “rather minimal,” a description affirmed in court by the prosecutor.
“There is no testimony that he at anytime actually beat or hit…Mr. Champion,” Lubet said. “He allegedly was there. But as far as the injuries caused to Mr. Champion, he wasn’t directly responsible.”
The judge also praised Jones, now enrolled at the State College of Florida, “for stepping up to the plate” and accepting responsibility for his role in the deadly hazing.
An Orlando lawyer, Adamson described Jones’ decision as a “best interest” plea in which he is not admitting guilt nor denying it, but accepting the facts and the law as presented by the prosecutors. She said the plea does not require nor bar Jones from testifying against any of his bandmates.