TALLAHASSEE -- Prosecutors charged 12 former Florida A&M University band members with manslaughter Monday, a major escalation in the criminal case surrounding the tragic 2011 hazing death of a drum major.
The new manslaughter charges come more than nine months after prosecutors charged 13 ex-band members with the lesser crime of “felony hazing” in Robert Champion’s death, saying manslaughter or murder would be difficult to prove. Many of the individuals initially charged with felony hazing saw their charges upgraded to manslaughter Monday, meaning they could face far more serious penalties if convicted.
Christopher Chestnut, an attorney for Champion’s parents, said the manslaughter charges are more appropriate, given the tragic death of the 26-year-old drum major.
“Robert Champion wasn’t injured with hazing — he was killed with hazing,” Chestnut told the Herald/Times. “We do think [the charges] will be effective in deterring future events like this.”
The Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office also charged two additional ex-band members, Henry Nesbitt, 26, and Darryl Cearnel, 25, with manslaughter.
Cearnel was performing CPR when Champion, a member of FAMU’s famous Marching 100 band, died on Nov. 19, 2011, after a postgame hazing ritual aboard a bus in Orlando.
Nesbitt called 911 as Champion lost consciousness and can be heard telling the dispatcher, "He’s in my hands, ma’am. He’s cold."
State attorney Jeff Ashton made the decision to bring additional charges, announcing in emails to defendants lawyers’ that their clients would face the charge of manslaughter.
Ashton declined comment on why he decided to upgrade the charges, which come more than a year after Champion’s death shined a spotlight on the culture of hazing within the Marching 100. FAMU’s band has been suspended since Champion’s death.
Last year, Ashton’s predecessor, Lawson Lamar, opted against bringing murder or manslaughter charges, saying the mass hazing made it difficult to assign responsibility for Champion’s death.
“We can prove participation in hazing and a death,” Lawson said at the time. “We do not have a blow or a shot or a knife thrust that killed Mr. Champion.”
Manslaughter, a second-degree felony in Florida, is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Felony hazing, a third-degree felony, carries a maximum penalty of five years.
While Lawson’s office had done more than 100 interviews in the case, court documents show that additional information has emerged since he originally brought felony hazing charges.
In July, Lanauze Keon Hollis, one of Champion’s fellow drum majors, described in detail the harrowing hazing ritual that prosecutors say killed Champion. Hollis said several band members hit him and other participants with fists and various objects as they tried to cross from one end the bus to the other.
“I was punched and kicked by multiple people at the same time,” said Hollis, in a written court statement last year. “I was whipped with a drum strap a few times by Henry (Nesbitt) while I was being held in the [aisle]. I was hit with drum mallets and sticks along with being bombarded by several people.”
Hollis said that after he completed the hazing, Champion began the ritual but had trouble making it to the back of the bus under the deluge of blows.
Sometime after Champion completing the ritual, Champion began vomiting and passed out. He was pronounced dead after an ambulance rushed to the parking lot where the bus was located.
According to officials, Champion died of “hemorrhagic shock” and had “extensive contusions” on his chest, arms, shoulders and back, evidence that he was beaten to death.
Judge Marc Lubet, who is presiding over the case, conferenced with all the attorneys involved before Monday’s hearing and said they all agreed that because of a witness list that includes more than 100 people, a June trial date was unlikely.
He has set another status hearing in the case for August.
FAMU, which recently hired an anti-hazing specialist and is searching for a new band director, declined to comment. Champion’s parents, Pamela and Robert Champion Sr., are suing the university for the death of their son.
Chestnut said that FAMU is culpable because it did not end the culture of hazing in the band and in other student organizations, despite evidence of a dangerous problem.
"Due to the pending civil litigation, the University has no comment at this time," said FAMU spokesperson Sharon P. Saunders.
The Associated Press and the Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report. Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.