Charges Expected in Gay FAMU Drum Major’s Hazing Death
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - When prosecutors announce criminal charges Wednesday in the hazing death of a Florida A&M University band member, they will embark on a legal chess game involving multiple defendants who require different approaches for winning convictions, experts say.
Prosecutors have prepared at least five separate cases against the suspects who contributed to 26-year-old Robert Champion’s death aboard a chartered bus parked outside an Orlando hotel last November.
Detectives said Champion was hazed by other band members following a performance against a rival school and witnesses told emergency dispatchers Champion was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus.
The medical examiner’s office in Orlando ruled that Champion had bruises to his chest, arms, shoulder and back and internal bleeding that caused him to go into shock, which killed him.
Prosecutors sometime cluster defendants by case, meaning the number of defendants could be higher than five, said Bob Dekle, a University of Florida law professor. That could make the prosecution more complicated as potential witnesses may be defendants who can invoke their Fifth Amendment right not to testify for fear of incriminating themselves, he said.
"You lead with your best case and get a conviction, and that sometimes creates a domino effect on the willingness of others to go to trial," Dekle said. "It’s a chess game."
The charges range from misdemeanors to felonies, said Danielle Tavernier, a spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s Office in Orlando. She refused to specify the charges pending an announcement by prosecutors Wednesday.
Hazing that involves bodily harm is a third-degree felony in Florida, but legal experts said prosecutors also may file more serious charges like manslaughter and second-degree murder depending on whether it was obvious Champion was in distress while he was being hazed.
"I think it’s sure-fire that they are going to charge them with the hazing," said Randy McClean, an Orlando-area defense attorney. "But if his injuries were so that when they were beating him, it became readily apparent that he was in real distress and they kept beating him, then I think they would have manslaughter, possibly second-degree murder."
Florida’s hazing law was passed in 2005 following the death of another Florida college student. The law defines hazing as any act that endangers the health or safety of a student for the purpose of admission to a school group.
"I’ve never seen it personally used but this is the text book case for it," McClean said.
If prosecutors aim for the more serious charges, they will have to prove either premeditation or recklessness, said Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University.
"I suspect the charge will be some level of manslaughter because this obviously was a hazing gone very, very wrong," Jarvis said.
Prosecutors are better off charging the defendants separately, as opposed to charging them all together, because it will give them leverage to pressure those charged with less serious crimes to testify against those facing more serious charges, Jarvis said.