ORLANDO, Florida — The prosecutor in the case of three former band members charged with manslaughter in the hazing death of a Florida A&M University drum major told jurors Tuesday that all of those involved — even the victim — participated in a brutal act they knew was illegal.
State attorney Jeff Ashton said during his opening statement that evidence would prove that Robert Champion, 26, willingly submitted to the tradition-filled beating ritual known as "Crossing Bus C" that caused his death in November 2011. Ashton said though Champion did it in an effort to gain respect within the band, it does not absolve any of the other band members who participated.
"Some might say tradition killed Robert Champion, and there's some truth to that," Ashton said. "The tradition goes back as far as anyone can remember. It involves brutal violence from one band member to another.
"He wanted to be accepted, and it cost him his life."
Defense attorneys said there was no conspiracy at all and that the prosecution couldn't prove any of three was directly responsible for killing Champion.
The final three former band members charged with manslaughter and felony hazing in the November 2011 incident — 24-year-old Benjamin McNamee, 22-year-old Aaron Golson and 28-year-old Darryl Cearnel —are being tried together. If convicted, they each face 15 years in prison.
Four men and four women were selected to serve as jurors. Six will constitute the main jury, with the other two serving as alternates.
"This is not a situation where they knew what they were doing was significant," said attorney Michael Dicembre, who is representing McNamee.
Golson's attorney, Craig Brown, also said there was no conspiracy.
"They did not get together, they did not conspire to get on a bus to cause the death of Mr. Champion," Brown said. "A tragedy is a tragedy no matter how it happens. But not every tragedy is a crime."
Anthony Britt, who is representing Cearnel, said the only thing he did was administer CPR to Champion after he collapsed outside the bus.
Champion's beating death aboard a band bus parked outside a hotel after a football game exposed a culture of hazing within the school's famed band. Champion, of Decatur, Georgia, went through what Ashton described as a three-step process that culminated with him running a gauntlet and being punched, kicked and struck with band instruments. He would collapse and die a short time later.
Later Tuesday the two former band members who crossed Bus C before Champion — Lissette Sanchez and fellow drum major Keon Hollis —described the physically taxing ordeal it entailed, which ended with Hollis weak an vomiting afterward. Both said they went through for respect.
Hollis said he tried to dissuade Champion, who had never previously wanted to participate from doing it.
"I told him I'd do it myself...but (Champion) was the type of person who wasn't going to let you go through something by yourself," Hollis said.
Former band members Ryan Dean and Harold Finley also testified, with each placing the three defendants on the bus.
Dean said he saw all three on the bus the night Champion died, but only observed Golson and McNamee hitting Champion. Finley said he saw Cearnel strike Champion with a strap, and McNamee kicking Champion during the part of the crossing known as the "hot seat."
A total of 15 former band members were charged with manslaughter in the case. Several took plea deals and received combinations of probation and community service.
Earlier this year Dante Martin got six years in prison for his involvement in Champion's death. Another former band member, Jessie Baskin, served one year in county jail.
Champion's parents said watching the trial wasn't any easier a second time.
"My son didn't just die. He didn't just collapse. He was murdered," Pam Champion said. "They key thing about it is, if this had happened outside a college environment, what would it be called? The difference is that word, 'hazing.' My son lost his life because of hazing."
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