State: Charges Filed against 13 in Champion Homicide

The state announced Wednesday charges against 13 people in Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion’s hazing death last November. The state has officially ruled the death a homicide.

Following a press conference, several individuals were booked at the Leon County Jail, and one in Georgia, in connection with Champion’s death. Caleb Jackson, 23, and Rikki Willis, 24, were held for felony hazing in this case.

Eleven will face felony hazing charges. Ninth District State Attorney Lawson Lamar said that those without a criminal record could face up to six years in prison.

He refused to divulge names, saying that because they were flight risks, his office would hold off until after the arrests have been made. He declared a media blackout on the case during the proceedings, explaining, “We will be doing our talking in court.”

In reading a statement that included the charges, Lamar said Champion was “pummeled to death” resulting in internal bleeding, which led to his death in Orlando on Nov. 19, 2011. He called the hazing culture in American universities “bullying with a tradition.”
“This case is too important for the future of Florida,” Lamar said.

He had planned not to answer any questions, but as he walked away, a reporter asked about the charges. Why only homicide, the reporter wondered.

“The testimony obtained to date does not [suggest] murder,” he said, referring to the legal, intent-to-kill stipulation that must accompany murder charges.

FAMU BOT Chairman Solomon Badger and President James H. Ammons sent their condolences to the family in a statement and outlined some of the steps the university has undergone to eradicate hazing.
The Champion family filed a lawsuit against the bus company responsible for the transport of the band, claiming the driver, Wendy Millette, stood guard during the events that led to the death of their son.

Champion’s death has become a symbol of the culture of hazing at FAMU and sparked a national debate, much to the chagrin of administrators, alumni, faculty and students. In the aftermath of the incident, administrators and the Board of Trustees took aim at what would solve such a violent subculture initiating a series of on-campus seminars with prominent speakers and adopting a new motto of “respect and dignity.”

The BOT also established an anti-hazing committee composed of experts in law, hazing and marching bands, which had its first meeting in March. After two members resigned in early April over whether the group should be subject to Florida’s open government laws, another three members recently resigned.

“They felt that given the operational constraints and limited time frame to prepare a report, they could not reasonably complete the task asked of them,” said FAMU spokeswoman Sharon Saunders.

Belinda Shannon, the BOT’s liaison between the AHC, would be working “with the university’s internal crisis committee to identify short term issues and proposed recommendations for Board review and discussion at the June meeting,” Saunders added.

David Starnes, director of athletic bands at Western Carolina University, cited “roadblocks” in the committee’s process as a major reason for his resignation in a letter to Shannon. “I do not feel that FAMU or the Board of Trustees is ready to take this step.”

Since Champion’s death in November, seven band members were arrested in connection with hazing incidents and two music professors, Anthony Simons III and Diron Holloway were put on leave after a Tallahassee Police department report said they had been present at band fraternity hazing off campus. Last week they resigned prior to facing administrative action from the university.

The band still remains inactive and new member intake has been halted indefinitely.

Band Director Julian White was placed on administrative leave in the days following Champion’s death. White has said he alerted the administration of the persistent problem of hazing but his warnings were ignored. After he learned about several incidents, 26 members of the band were barred from playing at the Florida Classic where Champion was killed.

“Now that arrests have been made and the criminal investigation into the hazing that led to Robert Champion’s death has been concluded, it is our position that President Ammons and/or the Board of Trustees should finally consider our petition to have Dr. White fully reinstated as Director of Bands and Chair of the Music Department at Florida A&M University,” said Chuck Hobbs, White’s Attorney, in a statement.