Defense attorneys for the remaining four band members of Florida's
A & M University's Marching 100 band have been denied their request
for Florida's hazing statute to be declared unconstitutional in a
ruling in Orlando recently. Many of the well known band members had been
charged with both manslaughter and hazing. However, it appears that the
reaction to the attorneys' request has been somewhat equivocal.
The original charge was made after an incident on a bus that the band was
using after a performance in November 2011 that resulted in the death
of one of the band and injuries to two others. The three band members
had been "hazed" by 15 of their fellow band members as they
moved down the middle of the bus. It was reported that the three young
men were pummeled and beaten by fists, drumsticks and mallets. One of
the trio, Robert Champion, was allegedly so badly affected by the beating
that he complained that he couldn't breathe properly. He collapsed
and became unconscious and died soon after. The autopsy revealed that
he had died from internal bleeding.
The incident was widely reported at the time and the university's record
of the use of hazing by its students was investigated quite thoroughly.
11 of the band were subsequently convicted on the charges and have received
negotiated sentences. Four of the defendants are still to go on trial.
They have pleaded not guilty to the combined manslaughter and hazing charges.
Their defense attorneys have said that the state's hazing statute
is so vague that it cannot be seriously interpreted in the case of the
charges laid against these four men.
The four men have been charged with the most serious charge in statute
section 1006.63 – a felony in the third degree, presumably because
the hazing episode led to the death of Robert Champion. The first paragraph
of the statute describes in detail what is considered "hazing"
in a university or other post-secondary institution and does make a distinction
between an activity that causes another student mental or physical harm
and actions which could be construed to have similar effects but are part
of a competition.
The State Attorney, Jeff Ashton, considers what happened on that day in
Bus C, where the "hazing" incident took place, part of a consistent
pattern of behavior in the college by the marching band. He says that
the four remaining defendants got on that bus prepared to break the law
when they beat the three other members of their band on their passage
through the bus. Ashton said that the bus beatings were commonplace, in
addition to a practice known as the "hot seat" in which a member
of the band is forced to put their head down while being beaten.
The defense attorneys complain that two additional charges of hazing brought
recently have left them little time to prepare a proper defense and want
the hazing charges dropped because of what they claim as deficiencies
in the statute's wording. The presiding judge, Rene Roche, has denied
the request for the statute to be declared unconstitutional, but has compromised
to a certain extent. Witnesses at the upcoming trial will now only be
allowed to use the word "hazing" if they have read the wording
of the statute carefully and therefore understand what it means in legal
terms. This include any references to anti hazing rules made by the university
which the band members had previously signed their acceptance.
The defense team also claims that Champion's body was disturbed soon
after the autopsy on his body in order for organs to be removed for medical
purposes, and so the autopsy report should not be made available as evidence.
They also say that the coroner made comments after the autopsy which could
be prejudicial and affect the way jurors view the trial.
The trial is set to begin next Monday but could be delayed if the defense
team's complaints are upheld.