ORLANDO (CBSMiami/AP) — A jury convicted a former Florida A&M band member of manslaughter and felony hazing on Friday in connection to the death of a drum major.
Prosecutors said Dante Martin, 27, was known as “the president of Bus C” and organized the initiations that required fellow band members to try to make their way through a pounding gauntlet of fists, drumsticks and mallets from the front of the bus to the back in November 2011 after a football game. Two other band members went through the bus before Robert Champion, 26, of Decatur, Georgia. Martin was convicted of misdemeanor hazing counts in their beatings.
Champion’s parents sat silently as the verdicts were read. Martin sat with his head down.
Martin’s sentencing was set for Jan. 9 and he was taken into custody. Manslaughter is punishable by up to 15 years in prison in Florida.
Champion complained of trouble breathing and vomited after the ritual, then collapsed and died in a parking lot. His death cast a pall over the school’s nationally acclaimed band, which had played at Super Bowls and before U.S. presidents. The band was suspended for more than a year after the death and several school officials resigned in the aftermath.
Defense attorneys told jurors the ritual was more akin to a competition and that there was no actual hazing. They said Champion and the others voluntarily took part.
“You can’t take it in isolation and act like it was just any other band,” defense attorney Richard Escobar said during closing arguments. “Brutal as it was, foolish as it was…it was competitive.”
Prosecutor Jeff Ashton said testimony made it clear that band members were looking for a measure of respect and acceptance by “crossing Bus C.” But he challenged the defense’s argument.
“Tradition didn’t kill Robert Champion,” Ashton said. “Tradition isn’t to blame. Tradition is not an excuse…It’s not a defense to those that got caught.”
Several other former band members have pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and three others await trial.
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