FAMU Hazing Death Update:<br />
House Arrest, Probation and No Jail Time for First Defendants Sentenced<br />

Former FAMU band member Rikki Willis 

There are new developments in the case of Robert Champion, the 26-year-old Florida A&M University drum major who died in November 2011 after a savage hazing from fellow band members.  Robert Champion was also gay—and that may have been “among” the reasons why he was beaten so viciously during the hazing ritual, according to the family’s attorney.

Champion’s former roommate Rikki Wills and another former band member were sentenced on Friday for their role in the fatal hazing. “Wills' four-year probation follows a year of community control, a sanction similar to house arrest,” reports the Orlando Sentinel. “Shawn Turner must serve an 18-month term of community control and three years probation.”

Wills and Turner become the latest in a series of probationary sentences for the fatal hazing.  Fourteen former members of FAMU’s celebrated “Marching 100” have been charged with manslaughter and felony hazing in connection with Champion's death. The manslaughter charge carries a possible 15-year prison sentence.  Five former band members have “pleaded guilty or no contest to hazing charges”—and none have received jail time, reports the Orlando Sentinel.

The probationary sentences do not "send a strong enough message" to deter the culture of hazing, said Pamela Champion, the mother of the deceased FAMU drum major, at Friday’s sentencing In Orlando. "We need to end the madness.”

“Enough is enough,” said Robert Champion, the father. “The hazing has to [stop].”

Manslaughter charges were dismissed against Wills, Turner and two others sentenced so far in exchange for their plea. Wills and Turner “potentially have to testify against former band mates, if they go to trial,” adds Tampa Bay News 9.

Only one person so far has pleaded guilty to manslaughter and will be sentenced later this month.

The savage beating of Robert Champion happened on a bus in an Orlando hotel parking on November 19, 2011. This was after FAMU played their annual rivalry football game with Bethune-Cookman University, the private historically Black college in Daytona Beach. The Tallahassee-based Florida A&M is the state's only public HBCU and boasts the largest enrollment of any HCBU in the nation.

Detectives believe Champion absorbed “up to 300 blows” while being kicked, punched and hit with drum sticks and traffic cones.  According to the lawsuit later filed by Champion’s family, their son was beaten so brutally, he suffered “severe bleeding” and was vomiting.  

Champion's tragic death has brought new attention to hazing at historically Black colleges and universities.  Hazing has long been a problem in marching bands at HBCUs in the South, where spots are coveted and members are awarded virtually the same status as athletes. 

FAMU‘s "Marching 100" band is legendary—but unfortunately the proud tradition also includes a long history of violent hazing incidents.  Three FAMU students were arrested and charged in December 2011 in connection with the brutal hazing of first-year student Bria Hunter that resulted in a broken leg.  The October 31, 2011 incident apparently happened about three weeks before Champion’s fatal hazing.

The band has been suspended since Champion's death.  The university will make a decision late this month on reinstating the band, reports Tallahassee's WCTV. A new band director was recently hired—so the “decision” could have been already made.

Champion’s parents told the New York Times and Orlando Sentinel in January 2012 that their son was gay.  “The former band director, Julian White, who was fired after Mr. Champion’s death, suggested that this might have been an isolated case of homophobia,” the Times added.  Robert Champion’s case had become a trending topic on many Black news sites and gossip blogs until that revelation—and coverage of the case has dramatically dropped (See our May 2012 article, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell": Why Has Black Media Ignored the Sexuality of FAMU Hazing Victim Robert Champion?”)

The family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against  FAMU, the bus company and the Rosen Plaza Hotel in Orlando, claiming they willingly allowed illegal hazing acts over many years. Last month, a judge rejected FAMU's controversial argument that Champion "was a voluntary 'participant” in the illegal hazing that killed him."

Meanwhile: The family of another deceased student at an HBCU have filed another wrongful death lawsuit alleging hazing. On May 30, the mother of a Bethune-Cookman University student who died in a February 2012 car accident filed suit against BCU. The suit claims “19-year-old Marcus A. Thomas and other pledges were intentionally sleep-deprived over a three-week period” and the university failed to prevent the abuse. Thomas was allegedly pledging Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, a fraternity for music students. 
 

Rod McCullom has written and produced for ABC News and NBC, The Atlantic, EBONY, the Los Angeles Times and others. Read his award winning site Rod 2.0. Follow him on Twitter: @RodMcCullom