A Florida jury started deliberating Friday afternoon in the trial of Dante Martin, the leader of a Florida A&M University hazing ritual that killed 26-year-old Robert Champion in 2011. Martin could get a 15-year prison sentence if he's found guilty of manslaughter and felony hazing of Champion, the Associated Press reported. He also faces misdemeanor hazing charges involving two other FAMU band members.
Martin, 27, declined to testify in his trial, which started Monday. His attorneys did not present any witnesses. The prosecutors called eight and presented what State Attorney Jeff Ashton called "overwhelming evidence" in "the classic definition of hazing."
Champion died Nov. 19, 2011, after "crossing Bus C," an initiation challenge imposed in the Marching 100, the university's famous marching band that has played in the Olympic Games, the Super Bowl and inauguration of President Barack Obama. Participants run from the front to back of a parked bus while other band members hit them with fists and instruments. Champion died from hemorrhagic shock due to internal bleeding from blunt force trauma, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
Martin was president of Bus C and orchestrated the procedure, Marching 100 alumni testified during trial. Martin's lawyer said the the band's activities were exempt from Florida's hazing law. Also, he argued, it was a tradition of the 68-year-old band, and no members were forced to participate. "You can't take it in isolation and act like it was just any other band," Richard Escobar said. "Brutal as it was, foolish as it was ... it was competitive."
Even though all band members had signed anti-hazing pledges, a medical examiner testified that Champion could have been hit as many as 50 times while on the bus, WESH reported. "Tradition isn't to blame for Robert Champion's death," Ashton said. "You don't get to break the law because those who came before you did it."
After Champion's death, the Marching 100 was suspended for nearly two years. Fifteen former members were charged. Of them, nine were sentenced to probation or community service, the Orlando Sentinel reported. One went to jail, one is Martin, and the four others have pleaded not guilty.