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Charges upgraded to manslaughter in FAMU hazing death


Robert Champion, a drum major in Florida A&M University's Marching 100 band, performs during halftime of a football game in Orlando, Fla.

The Tampa Tribune Enlarge

ORLANDO, Fla. — Prosecutors have upgraded to manslaughter the charges facing former FAMU band members in the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion.

They also charged two more former band members, Henry Nesbitt, 26, and Darryl Cearnel, 25, in the hazing.

The Orange-Osceola state attorney’s office sent an email to attorneys for the former band members Monday afternoon, notifying them that their clients will be charged with manslaughter in addition to the felony hazing charges on which they were arrested last spring.

Most were charged last May in connection with Champion’s beating on Nov. 19, 2011, in Orlando.

On Monday, State Attorney Jeff Ashton also decided to charge Nesbitt and Cearnel, who was performing CPR on Champion when paramedics arrived.. Nesbitt called 911, according to the sheriff’s investigative summary.

It was not immediately clear why Ashton decided to make the changes and what roles Nesbitt and Cearnel are thought to have played. Neither cooperated with the Orange County sheriff’s investigation into Champion’s death, according to a summary released last year by the state attorney’s office.

Lawyers for most of the former band members were annoyed Monday to discover that prosecutors were adding charges as a pretrial conference in the criminal case was about to begin at the Orange County Courthouse.

Manslaughter, a second-degree felony in Florida, is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Last spring, the 10 were charged with felony hazing, a third-degree felony. The maximum for felony hazing is five years.

On Monday, the Champion family applauded Ashton’s “courage in amending theses charges to be more [commensurate] with the heinous crime committed,” said the family’s attorney, Christopher Chestnut.

Ashton notified the family of the changes late last week, Chestnut said.

Champion’s parents had been disappointed and upset last May when Lawson Lamar, who then was state attorney, decided to charge those involved with Champion’s death only with felony hazing.

Pamela and Robert Champion Sr., who live in Georgia, also were skeptical about the number of band members charged at the time, considering more than 20 people were aboard the parked charter bus on which Champion was beaten.

“This is what we’ve been saying all along, and finally someone has the courage to hold these folks accountable,” Chestnut said, adding that a felony hazing charge alone essentially “was a slap on the wrist and basically an endorsement to continue the practice.”

Chestnut also criticized FAMU, saying Champion would not be dead and no one would be facing jail time if the university had done a better job preventing and controlling hazing within its famed ensemble.

Champion, 26, one of six drum majors who led FAMU’s marching band in 2011, died after he was beaten on a charter bus parked at the Rosen Plaza hotel in Orlando, where the band stayed during the Florida Classic weekend.

His death led to the suspension of the band, the retirement of longtime director Julian White and the ouster of then-FAMU President James Ammons. The university also is a defendant in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Chestnut.

The Florida Classic, which has been a critical fundraiser for Florida’s only public historically black college, is the Rattlers’ annual rivalry football game with Bethune-Cookman University that features a “battle of bands.”

Circuit Judge Marc Lubet, who is presiding over the FAMU criminal case, asked Assistant State Attorney Nicole Pegues whether prosecutors were “planning on arresting anybody else.” She replied, “I think we have everybody that we’re going to charge.”

The judge scheduled a pretrial conference for Aug. 2, meaning that any trial would occur later.

Defense lawyers told the judge that preparing for a trial has been difficult because the case could involve as many as 100 witnesses.

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