Florida state prosecutors have filed 13 felony charges and 20 misdemeanor hazing charges against students who allegedly took part in the beating death of Florida A&M band drum major Robert Champion. But because the medical examiner concluded his death was not caused by any single blow, no murder or manslaughter charges were filed.
At a press conference on Wednesday, state attorney Lawson Lamar said the students were charged under a 2011 Florida statute that defines hazing and labels it a felony and administers more severe punishment if the hazing results in injury or death. The suspects, all FAMU students, were not named because all but one are at large. That student is currently in custody.
Champion, 26, was on a bus with his FAMU bandmates last November after a performance in Orlando when he collapsed, allegedly after having undergone a brutal beating ritual. His family’s attorney, Christopher Chestnut, says the student was punched, kicked and suffocated in the incident and has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the bus company and the driver, whom he accuses of standing guard outside the bus.
Chestnut told the Orlando Sentinel that Champion’s family is “devastated” because they expected more serious charges. “Their son is dead. He was beaten to death on a bus — that constitutes murder,” he said.
Lamar said the charges came from his working in conjunction with Orange and Osceola County medical examiner Jan Garavaglia, who concluded in an autopsy that Champion died of hemorrhagic shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage, caused by blunt force trauma sustained during the hazing incident, her report says.
As Lamar explained more simply: “Robert Champion tragically died from being being beaten to death on that bus.”
The charges did not add up to murder, however, because Lamar said “testimony obtained to date does not contain the elements of murder. We do not have a blow or shot or knife thrust that killed Mr. Champion.”
Officials are currently pursuing each suspect, most of whom live in Florida, officials say. None of the names will be released until each of the suspects are in custody.
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Champion’s death has rocked the school, a historically black college, whose band, dubbed the “Marching 100,” is known for its riveting halftime performances. The incident resulted in the suspension of band director Julian White as well as band program itself, pending an investigation.
FAMU President James Ammons and Solomon Badger, chair of the school’s Board of Trustees issued a statement Wednesday saying: “We are vigorously working to eradicate hazing from FAMU and doing everything within our power to ensure an incident like this never happens again. Our hearts and our prayers are with the Champion family and the extended FAMU family as we all continue to deal with this tragedy.”