Champions follow hazing cases to the end
BY ANDREAS BUTLER
DAYTONA BEACH – Nearly five years have passed since Robert Champion died from a hazing incident within the Florida A&M University (FAMU) marching band during the Florida Classic in Orlando but the legal aftermath continues.
On Tuesday, the only suspect who got jail time asked judges to reverse his criminal sentence.
Dante Martin’s attorney’s stood before the Fifth District Court of Appeals (DCA) in Daytona Beach. In the audience were Champion’s parents Pamela and Robert Sr.; they have been a fixture at all the trials.
Champion, 26, was one of six drum majors who led FAMU’s marching band in 2011. He died on Nov. 19, 2011 during the annual Florida Classic weekend, which has been a critical fundraiser for Florida’s only public historically Black college. The Florida Classic is the Rattlers’ annual rivalry football game against Bethune-Cookman University that features a “battle of bands.”
Following a performance at the then-Florida Citrus Bowl that was part of the Florida Classic, Champion participated in a hazing ritual called “Crossing Bus C.” He had to walk down the aisle of a large chartered passenger bus from the front to the back while being pushed around, punched, kicked and beaten with drumsticks and mallets by other band members.
Champion died soon after the ordeal. An autopsy by the Orange County medical examiner’s office concluded that he died of bleeding in soft tissues of his body that was caused by the beating administered during the hazing ritual.
Settled the lawsuits
Early in the legal proceedings, the Champions settled wrongful death lawsuits against the bus company, Fabulous Coach Lines, and the driver of the bus, Wendy Mellette. The amounts of the settlement have never been publically disclosed.
In September 2015, a month before a civil jury trial was set, the Champions settled with FAMU for $1.1 million, an apology and placement of a commemorative plaque in their son’s memory on the FAMU campus. They also settled with the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando – where the bus was parked during the tragedy – for $800,000.
In the wake of Champion’s death, then-university President James Ammons and longtime marching-band Director Julian White were forced out of their respective positions. The FAMU Marching “100’’ band was suspended from performing.
Champion’s death also prompted the Board of Governors of the State University System to investigate FAMU’s handling of hazing on campus. Inspector General Derry Harper released a stinging report concluding that FAMU lacked the internal controls needed to identify and fight hazing before Champion was beaten by his fellow band members.
The year after Champion was killed, the economic impact of a Florida Classic in Orlando without the Marching “100” was felt when the country’s largest Black HBCU event attracted its lowest turnout since the mid-1990s.
Fifteen former band members, including Champion’s fellow drum majors, were criminally charged. Most negotiated plea deals with Orlando prosecutors.
Martin, who was accused of organizing the fatal hazing activity, went to trial. He was convicted of manslaughter and hazing and received the harshest sentence of all the perpetrators, a 77-month sentence prison term that his lawyers appealed to the Fifth DCA. He has approximately four years left to serve.
Manslaughter, a second-degree felony in Florida, is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The maximum for felony hazing, a third-degree felony, is five years.
Martin’s attorneys are arguing that the state hazing law is unconstitutional and too broad, and that Martin wasn’t given a fair trial. A decision on the appeal is expected within 30 days.
“We are still hoping justice will be done,” Robert Champion Sr. asserted. “A crime was committed.
We need to show that we will not take violence, hazing and murder on the regular.”
Mrs. Champion said, “We have a concern with how the case is with regard to those who are responsible for our son’s death. It looks like many have been rewarded.
“Many have received probation. Two have gotten out of probation, two had requested their records sealed and one got to visit his family in another part of the state. And this case today shows that it’s not being taken seriously.”
Not a ‘sport’
“An attorney called my son’s death ‘a sport’ and ‘a competition.’ This could open doors for other killings. We are losing our kids…The time is now. It’s not getting any better. This is the time to take a stand. We cannot lose any of our kids to senseless violence,” argues Robert Champion Sr.
“We have to look at the educational institutions. We must look at Florida A&M. They are yet to accept responsibility for what happened. That’s a problem. If you know that you have a problem but don’t admit it…how could you address it? We want to make sure that no other family has to deal with this,” declared Pamela Champion.
The Champions are keeping their son’s memory alive through the “Be A Champion” Foundation that was created shortly after the student’s death. It tries to prevent hazing in schools, bands and athletics.
Education and support
“We want to educate and provide support,” Mrs. Champion said. “We must educate on what hazing really is. It’s violence. Everyone is responsible. The educational system, justice system and everyone needs to be educated. We have worked with the U.S. Department of Education, been at the White House, at summits and we’ve done two webinars.”
“All lives matter,” Champion Sr. told the Florida Courier. “Anyone who loses a child is affected by violence. That child is gone. You never know the true potential of a kid. My son was killed in school.
We are trying to raise awareness through the educational system first. We want to make life better for all children.”
The “Be A Champion” Foundation is planning an event in Decatur, Georgia on Nov. 19. That day already has been designated to honor their son’s memory.