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Former Florida A&M band members face stiffer charges for hazing death

The Florida state's attorney office is charging 12 former FAMU band members with manslaughter in the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion who died on a bus after one of the band's performances. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

 

Twelve former Florida A&M University band members are now facing more severe charges for the 2011 death of drum major Robert Champion, after Florida prosecutors on Monday filed manslaughter counts against them.

Last May, ten of the ex-band members were charged with hazing, a third-degree felony, for Champion’s death during a hazing ritual on a bus after the band performed at a football game between Florida A&M and archrival Bethune-Cookman University. 

But on Monday, the Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office sent an email to the defendants’ attorneys notifying them that their clients will face second-degree manslaughter charges in addition to the hazing charges.

Two more former band members were also charged on Monday.

The manslaughter carries with it a maximum sentence of 15-years imprisonment under Florida law, while the maximum sentence for hazing would have only been 5 years.   

It is not yet known why State Attorney Jeff Ashton upgraded the charges and decided to make a case against two more of the former band members.  Calls for comment by NBC News were not returned.

But at least one defense attorney representing a former FAMU band member said he was not surprised to be notified of the more serious charges.

Bill Sharpe, who represents 25-year-old defendant Rikki Wills, called the move “a scare tactic” to encourage a plea bargain.

“It is not uncommon for them [Florida prosecutors] to do that in a high profile case,” said Sharpe.

The attorney said his client, who was Champion’s roommate, still plans to go to trial to prove his innocence.

Champion’s parents had said they were disappointed last May when then-state attorney Lawson Lamar decided to charge those involved only with felony hazing.

On Monday, the couple cheered the more severe penalty instituted by Ashton, who was sworn in as the Orange-Osceola state attorney earlier this year.

"This is what we've been saying all along and, finally, someone has the courage to hold these folks accountable,” Christopher Chestnut, an attorney representing Champion’s parents, told the Orlando Sentinel. 

He said the felony hazing charge was simply “a slap on the wrist and basically an endorsement to continue the practice."

Champion died from internal bleeding after receiving a beating that shed light on the famed bands culture of hazing.

In November 2011 he agreed to participate in the ritual called “crossing bus C,” in which he entered a dark bus and was kicked and punched while trying to make his way to the back.

After he pushed his way through the beat-down and made it to the end of the bus, Champion complained of feeling sick. Shortly afterwards he collapsed and died “hemorrhagic shock caused by blunt-force trauma,” according to his autopsy.

His death led to the suspension of the band, the retirement of its longtime director and the resignation of FAMU president James Ammons.

A pretrial conference has been scheduled for early August.