TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Defense lawyers disagreed with a prosecutor over whether an aspiring Florida A&M University fraternity member suffered serious bodily injury when blindfolded and beaten with canes and boxing gloves as a hazing trial opened Wednesday.
Five Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brothers are being tried in the first major test of a new Florida law that makes hazing a felony punishable by up to five years in prison if it results in serious bodily injury or death.
"They beat Marcus Jones with canes so severely he needed surgery to remove a blood clot from his buttocks and also they punched him wearing boxing gloves to the point he temporarily lost hearing," Assistant State Attorney Frank Allman said in his opening statement.
Allman told six jurors and two alternates that the skin on the sophomore student's buttocks was so severely damaged it "almost looked like plastic."
Those injuries suffered over four days constitute serious bodily injury, Allman said. Defense lawyers, though, said the doctors who treated Jones, 19, of Decatur, Ga., will testify the injuries were "not that bad."
The trial will continue Thursday, when Jones is expected to testify against the defendants, who were among the fraternity's top leaders. It is scheduled to last at least through Friday.
The defense lawyers said Jones suffered no broken bones or muscular injuries, his ear drum has fully healed and he had no permanent hearing loss. They also disputed Allman's characterization of the buttocks injury as a blood clot and said the surgery involved only the removal of a small patch of dead skin.
"It's a soft tissue injury, only a contusion to the buttocks surface," said Richard Keith Alan II, who is representing defendant Jason Harris, 25.
The other defendants, Brian Bowman, 23; Cory Gray, 22; Marcus Hughes, 21, and Michael Morton, 23, are represented by Chuck Hobbs.
"It healed very nicely," Hobbs said. "He has not lost the use of his buttocks in any way."
Alan said the evidence also will show Jones did not seek treatment back home until four days after the beatings ended.
Hobbs said Jones and his father, Army Master Sgt. Mark Jones, retained civil attorneys and suggested their motive for seeking criminal charges was financial — to enhance the chances of a lawsuit although none yet has been filed.
The family is in financial straits because the son lost a partial scholarship before the beatings and had spent $1,500 to buy food, clothing and other gifts seeking acceptance from fraternity members in addition to a $2,100 membership fee, Hobbs said.
He said evidence will show the father considered volunteering to return to Iraq to earn combat pay so he could keep his son in school.
The defense lawyers also questioned how the younger Jones could identify their clients as the perpetrators when the beatings occurred while he was blindfolded with a feminine sanitary napkin or in the dark at an abandoned warehouse.
At one point the candidates were allowed to remove the blindfolds and Jones was able to identify the defendants through their nicknames such as "Daddy Swagger" and "Daddy Young Buck," Allman said.
He also disclosed there was a sixth perpetrator but Jones was unable to identify him. As many as 27 candidates were beaten but only Jones and one other student needed medical attention, he said. The other injured student refused to cooperate with authorities.
Except for Harris, the defendants are accused of wielding the canes, a Kappa Alpha Psi symbol, or striking Jones with boxing gloves, Allman said. He said Harris participated in the hazing by encouraging the candidates to bear up and reviving them with water if they passed out.
Circuit Judge Kathleen Dekker denied a defense motion challenging the constitutionality of the new law but said that issue could be appealed if the defendants are convicted.
Jurors heard initial testimony from a campus police investigator who said Jones at first was unable to identify who beat him and two fraternity officials who said members had been warned hazing was prohibited.