ORLANDO, Fla. — A third band member charged with the hazing death of a Florida A&M drum major pleaded no contest today and agreed to testify against the remaining 11 defendants.
Caleb Jackson, 24, pleaded no contest to manslaughter and felony hazing. By pleading no contest, Jackson does not admit guilt but acknowledges prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him.
Jackson will be sentenced in the fall after giving testimony to prosecutors about what happened to drum major Robert Champion as he walked down a gauntlet of other band members who beat him with fists and mallets on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel in November 2011. Champion collapsed and later died.
Circuit Judge Marc Lubet warned Jackson that he could face a maximum of 35 years in prison if he changed his mind and didn’t cooperate.
“If you fully cooperate and continue to work with the state ... you may very well come out pretty good,” Lubet said. “If you don’t, you may very well come out really bad.”
Jackson answered only “yes, sir” and “no, sir” to a series of questions from the judge about whether he was entering the plea without coercion and whether he was aware he will be able to appeal any sentence.
Attorney Chuck Hobbs had said last week that Jackson would plead guilty. But Hobbs said he instead decided that it would be in Jackson’s best interest to plead no contest. He also said his client is hoping he will be sentenced only on the hazing charge.
Jackson is potentially prosecutors’ most important witness, Hobbs said.
“What I anticipate he will be able to testify to is who was placed, where, who was doing what, who was striking which blow,” Hobbs said. “I think it will help paint a much clearer picture for a jury with respect to who is culpable for that young man’s death.”
Jackson wanted to provide a clear record of what happened to Champion, whom he considered a friend, and also was compelled to change his plea from not guilty after prosecutors upped the charges to manslaughter earlier this year, Hobbs said.
Other defendants have told investigators that Jackson was an active participant in Champion’s hazing. But Hobbs said Jackson was pushing Champion through the gauntlet to get the hazing over with quicker.
“He was trying to push Robert through the melee,” Hobbs said.
No prosecutors showed up for today's hearing.
Chris Chestnut, an attorney for Champion’s parents in Atlanta, said Jackson’s plea may help with the prosecution of others. But he said the family already has a good idea of what happened.
“Perhaps he can offer some details we’re not aware of,” Chestnut said.
Jackson had been held in the Leon County Jail on a violation of probation since his arrest last May. He will get credit for the time he already has served in jail, Hobbs said.
Two other former band members have already entered no contest pleas.
Champion’s death led to the departure of the band’s longtime director, the abrupt resignation of the university’s president, James Ammons, and the indefinite suspension of the famed marching band. The school has made sweeping changes in an effort to end a culture of hazing.