By Stephen Hudak and Denise-Marie Ordway, Orlando Sentinel, MCT: ORLANDO, Fla. — An Orange County judge has ordered two years of probation and 200 hours of community service for Brian Jones — the first of a dozen former members of FAMU’s famous marching band to be sentenced for participating in the fatal hazing of drum major Robert Champion.
Jones, 23, a percussionist who had already pleaded no contest to a felony hazing charge, also will have to take an anti-hazing course and complete six months of community control, a more intensive type of probation.
Circuit Judge Marc Lubet could have imposed a sentence of up to five years in prison. But Lubet told Jones that his life was worth saving, that a felony record would destroy his life.
Lubet earlier had labeled Jones’ involvement in the hazing as “rather minimal.” As he announced the sentence, he quoted Abraham Lincoln, saying that “mercy bears richer fruit than strict justice.”
Before the sentencing, however, Champion’s mother, Pamela Champion, told the court that Jones’ role was not minimal. She called the hazing an act of murder.
“You will always know your part in what you’ve done,” Pamela Champion said, speaking toward Jones as she held a framed photograph of her son.
Champion, 26, died Nov. 19 after being beaten aboard a band bus parked outside the Rosen Plaza hotel. The famed Marching 100 had traveled to Orlando from Tallahassee to perform at the annual Florida Classic football game, a major fundraiser for FAMU and its longtime rival, Bethune-Cookman University of Daytona Beach, Fla.
During the court proceeding, Jones, 23, apologized to Champion’s parents, who had traveled from Georgia for the sentencing.
“Hazing is a completely inexcusable thing,” he said. “It went further than anybody thought … it would go.”
Jones had told investigators that he was not on the bus when Champion boarded it. But in a statement to sheriff’s detectives, fellow band member Benjamin McNamee, who also is charged in Champion’s death, claimed that he saw Jones on the bus holding Champion in a bear hug.
Champion was attempting to make his way from the front of the bus to the back as band members assaulted him with punches, kicks and objects ranging from drumsticks to straps and an orange traffic cone.
The hazing ritual is known as “crossing Bus C.”
Trials for the other 11 band members charged in Champion’s death are set for next year.
Two other former band members face a misdemeanor charge for hazing Lissette Sanchez of Orlando and Keon Hollis, a drum major. Those alleged hazings, which resulted in lesser injuries, occurred on the same bus before Champion was beaten.
During a press conference in May, Champion’s parents said they were frustrated that prosecutors decided to seek third-degree felony hazing charges instead of murder or manslaughter for the band members. “Their son is dead. He was beaten to death on a bus — that constitutes murder,” their lawyer, Christopher Chestnut, said at the time.
But Florida’s hazing statute is easier to prosecute. The charge of hazing-resulting-in-death requires that prosecutors prove only two things: that a band member participated in the ritual and that a death occurred.
The statute does not allow band members to use the defense that Champion submitted to the ritual beating.