From left, Pamela Champion and Robert Champion Sr. enter the room before… (John Spink / AP Photo/Atlanta…)
The first of a dozen defendants in the death of a Florida A&M drum major avoided prison time and was sentenced to probation and community service after he tearfully apologized for a hazing ritual that went tragically awry.
Orange County Circuit Court Judge Marc L. Lubet on Monday sentenced Brian Jones to six months of community control -- a strict type of probation -- then two years of more loosely supervised probation and 200 hours of community service, for his role in the death of Robert Champion, 26.
Jones had initially pleaded not guilty, but on Oct. 9 entered a plea of no contest in the case that roiled the Florida campus of the historically black university.
It was the first criminal sentence in the scandal involving the school’s famed Marching 100 band. The death of Champion, 26, led to the suspension of the band, and forced the university president and band leader to step down from their posts.
Eleven other FAMU band members face felony hazing charges; one band member faces a misdemeanor charge. No dates have been set for the trials but they are not expected until next year.
According to official reports, Champion, died from hemorrhagic shock following blunt force trauma during a ritual known as “crossing Bus C.” Champion had to move past a gauntlet of fellow band members who assaulted the drum major with fists and objects such as drumsticks during the hazing on a bus parked in front of an Orlando hotel after FAMU had played a rival in football on Nov. 19.
Lubet said he had to balance the needs of justice with that of mercy. He said he took into account that Jones, 23, had played a “relatively minor” role in the hazing and there was no evidence he had been part of any beating. Jones could have been sentenced to five years in prison.
“This young man’s part in this horrible act, compared with many of the others from what I am seeing, was minor,” Lubet said during the televised proceedings. Jones’ role was unclear. He told investigators that he was not on the bus when Champion boarded it, though another band member said he saw Jones holding Champion in a bear hug.
“I could, if I chose to, right now destroy this man’s life. I could destroy this man’s life right this minute,” by handing down a harsh sentence, Lubet said. “I think your life is worth saving,” the judge said, noting that Jones had no previous criminal record. “If you continue to live your life the way you did in the past, you will be a wonderful and productive citizen of the community. I would like to see that happen.”
Lubet handed down his sentence after Jones made a tearful statement to Champion’s parents in the courtroom.
“I stand before you today still in shock,” Jones said. “I want the world to know I am sorry for the death of your son, Robert,” he said to Champion’s parents. “Hazing is a completely inexcusable thing and it went further that anybody wanted it to do ...You don’t deserve to go through this pain.”
Champion’s parents spoke before the sentencing, calling for accountability.
“You will always know your part in what you've done," Pamela Champion said to Jones as she held a framed photograph of her son. “This is something you will have to live with.”
Robert Champion Sr. told Jones he had a heavy heart over the hazing death of his son.
“How are we going to keep going if we don’t hold these people responsible?” the father said. “This is the time for you to stand up and show others you were responsible for what you did.”
Jones was defended by his mother, Jacqueline, who extended her deepest condolences to the Champion family. “I ask God to step in and soften your heart,” she said, adding she was “encouraging the family, both families, to begin a healing process.”
No dates have been set for the trials of the 12 other band members who were charged but they are not expected until next year.
Wisconsin spa attack may be rooted in domestic violence
Girl mistaken for skunk at Halloween party is shot by relative
Astronauts bond with each other, their spacesuits; launch Tuesday