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12 charged with manslaughter in Florida A&M band hazing

March 04, 2013|By Matt Pearce
  • Twelve have defendants been charged with manslaughter in connection with the hazing death of Robert Champion, who was a Florida A&M University drum major.
Twelve have defendants been charged with manslaughter in connection with… (Joseph Brown III / Tampa…)

Florida prosecutors have beefed up the charges against former Florida A&M University marching band members accused of hazing a drum major to death.

Twelve defendants were charged with manslaughter Monday in the case involving the death of Robert Champion, 26, after a football game in November 2011. The controversy has resulted in the university president and band leader leaving their posts, and the suspension of the band.

Ten of the former band members had previously been charged with felony hazing, which carries a maximum of five years in prison. Now they are charged with felony manslaughter, which can bring up to 15 years. Two more defendants have been added: Henry Nesbitt, 26, and Darryl Cearnel, 25, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

One other person pleaded no contest in October to allegations that he had been part of a hazing ritual that resulted in Champion's death from hemorrhagic shock.

According to official reports, Champion, a drum major, died after blunt-force trauma that was inflicted during a ritual known as "crossing Bus C." Champion had to move past a gantlet of fellow band members who assaulted him with fists, drumsticks and other objects. 

A December report commissioned by the State University System of Florida criticized Florida A&M University, a historically black public college, for failing to deal with earlier reports of hazing, including incidents involving the prized marching band.

Three days before Champion's death, administrators had gathered to discuss  hazing allegations in the band, the report said. The university faces a wrongful-death lawsuit from Champion's family, who rejected a $300,000 settlement offer --  the most the university could offer without approval from the state Legislature.

Florida's felony hazing statute does not preclude prosecution under tougher charges. The decision to bring manslaughter charges was made after a new prosecutor, State Atty. Jeff Ashton, took over the office in charge of the case, replacing a longtime incumbent.

The Champion family's attorney, Christopher Chestnut, praised the tougher charges, telling the Orlando Sentinel that the lighter hazing charges were "a slap on the wrist and basically an endorsement to continue the practice."

A spokesman for Ashton's office told the Associated Press that Ashton would not comment on the upgraded charges.

The witness list for the cases includes more than 100 people, the AP reported, meaning a trial is likely months away because of the need for preparation.

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matt.pearce@latimes.com

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