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Florida A&M hazing charges underscore larger problem

More and more, hazing has moved from a private matter for universities to a public matter for prosecutors.  Thirteen were charged in the latest scandal, where a Florida A&M drum major died after being beaten by bandmates.

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In this November 2011 file photo, Robert Champion, a Florida A&M University drum major, performs during halftime of a football game in Orlando, Fla.

Joseph Brown III/The Tampa Tribune/AP/File

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Thirteen people were charged Wednesday in one of the biggest college hazing cases ever prosecuted in the U.S., accused in the death of a Florida A&M University drum major who authorities say was mercilessly pummeled by fellow members of the marching band.

The charges came more than five months after Robert Champion, 26, died aboard a chartered bus parked outside an Orlando hotel following a performance against a rival school.

While the most sensational hazing cases have typically involved fraternities, sororities or athletic teams, the FAMU tragedy in November exposed a brutal tradition among marching bands at some colleges around the U.S.

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"The death ... is nothing short of an American tragedy," said State Attorney Lawson Lamar. "No one should have expected that his college experience would include being pummeled to death."

Eleven defendants were charged with hazing resulting in death, a felony, and misdemeanor offenses that all together could bring nearly six years in prison. Two others face misdemeanor charges.

It was not immediately clear whether those charged were all students or whether they included faculty members or others involved in the road trip.

By Wednesday afternoon, two students were in custody at the Leon County jail in Tallahassee: Rikki Wills, 24, and Caleb Jackson, 23. Both are charged with felony hazing resulting in death.

Wills, who was also drum major, declined comment when reached by phone. No working phone number was available for Jackson. The names of the 11 others have not been released.

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Jackson was serving probation for a felony battery charge, according to state and local records. He was arrested in 2009 by Tallahassee Community College police for battery and resisting without violence and arrested again by Tallahassee police a year later, according to county jail records.

Champion had bruises on his chest, arms, shoulder and back and died of internal bleeding, Lamar said. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers that the drum major was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus.

The prosecutor gave no motive for the beating. But witnesses said Champion might have been targeted because he opposed the routine hazing that went on in the marching band or because he was gay, according his family's attorney.

Legal experts had predicted more serious charges, such as manslaughter or second-degree murder.

Champion's mother, Pam, said she was glad charges were brought but disappointed they weren't more severe. "I thought it should send a harsher message," she said.

Lamar said prosecutors didn't have the evidence to bring more serious charges.

"The testimony obtained to date does not support a charge of murder, in that it does not contain the elements of murder," he said. "We can prove participation in hazing and a death. We do not have a blow or a shot or a knife thrust that killed Mr. Champion. It is an aggregation of things which exactly fit the Florida statute as written by the Legislature."

Hazing in Florida was upgraded to a felony in 2005 following the death of a University of Miami student four years earlier. Chad Meredith was drunk and died trying to swim across a lake at the behest of his fraternity brothers. No charges were filed, but a civil jury ordered the fraternity to pay Meredith's parents $12 million.

Champion's death has jeopardized the future of FAMU's legendary marching band, which has performed at the Grammys, presidential inaugurations and Super Bowls and represented the U.S. in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. FAMU, based in Tallahassee, has suspended the band and set up a task force on curtailing hazing.

Hazing has long been practiced in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges like FAMU in the South, where the band is often as revered as the football team and members are campus celebrities.

Much of the hazing reported at FAMU has involved students trying to get into certain cliques within the band, and it has typically included punching, slapping and paddling.

Solomon Badger, chairman of the FAMU board of trustees, said the school is doing everything it can to eradicate hazing. He said of the charges: "I hope this wraps its arm around everything we have been plagued with the last six months."

Richard Sigal, a retired sociology professor at the County College of Morris in Randolph, N.J., who holds anti-hazing workshops at schools, said he could not recall another hazing case with so many defendants. Most cases don't result in criminal charges, and those that do typically end in plea bargains with little or no jail time, Sigal said.

Champion's parents have sued the bus company owner, claiming the driver stood guard outside while the hazing took place. The company said the driver was helping band members with their equipment.

The lawsuit described two types of hazing that took place on the bus.

In one ritual, students ran from the front of the bus to the back while other band members slapped, kicked and hit them. A student who fell was stomped and dragged to the front to run again.

In a ritual known as "the hot seat," a pillowcase was placed over the student's nose and mouth and he or she was forced to answer questions. If the student gave the correct answer, the pillowcase was removed briefly; a student who supplied a wrong answer was given another question without a chance to take a breath, the lawsuit said.

In a separate incident at FAMU, three people were charged with severely beating a woman's legs with their fists and a metal ruler last fall to initiate her into a clique of band members from Georgia. The woman suffered a broken thigh.

Also, four band members were arrested earlier this year and charged with hazing for allegedly punching, slapping and paddling five students from the clarinet section.

On Tuesday, a lawyer for two FAMU music professors who allegedly were present during a hazing of band members in 2010 said they have been forced out.

Former drum major Timothy Barber said the charges could help stop hazing at FAMU. "It kind of strikes a level of fear in people, that this hasn't stopped and it's not going to be tolerated," he said.

In some other major hazing cases around the country, four former students at California Polytechnic State University pleaded no contest and were sentenced to about a month in jail in 2010 in the drinking death of a fraternity pledge.

In 2005, four fraternity members at California State University pleaded guilty in the death of a student who was forced to drink large amounts of water during an initiation. The most serious charge was involuntary manslaughter, resulting in a one-year sentence for one member. Two others pleaded guilty to accessory to manslaughter and got six months.

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