ORLANDO, Fla. – Twelve former Florida A&M University band members were charged Monday with manslaughter in the 2011 hazing death of a drum major.
Ten of the band members had been charged last May with third-degree felony hazing for the death of 26-year-old Robert Champion, but the state attorney's office said they are adding the charge of manslaughter for each defendant. They also have charged two additional defendants with manslaughter, though they have yet to be arrested.
The second-degree manslaughter charge announced during an afternoon status hearing carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
Champion died in Orlando in November 2011 after he collapsed following what prosecutors say was a savage beating during a hazing ritual. It happened on a bus parked in a hotel parking lot after Florida A&M played Bethune-Cookman in their annual rivalry football game.
Authorities said Champion had bruises on his chest, arms, shoulder and back and died of internal bleeding. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers that the drum major was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus.
Christopher Chestnut, an attorney for Champion's parents, said Pam and Robert Champion, Sr. were pleased with Ashton's decision to upgrade the charges.
"These charges are commensurate with the acts committed," Chestnut said. "It sends the right message regarding zero-tolerance of hazing in the FAMU band."
Prosecutors had originally filed felony hazing charges that only required that they prove the defendants took part in a hazing that resulted in death. It didn't require them to prove who struck the fatal blows.
A spokesman for State Attorney Jeff Ashton's office said the prosecutor would not comment. Ashton, a 30-year veteran who was on the team that failed to convict Casey Anthony of murder in 2011, was sworn in as the area's top prosecutor in January after beating his former boss in a hotly contested election.
David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Miami, said it would be easier to prove felony hazing charges than it would be to prove manslaughter.
"The easy way out is you charge them with felony hazing. That's what they decided to do initially. You're still holding someone accountable," Weinstein said. "Now you have somebody new who comes in, takes a look at the evidence, and for a combination of reasons decides the manslaughter charge is warranted."
Weinstein also said it was not unusual for prosecutors to go ahead with the lesser charge while still gathering evidence and then later upgrade.
Two former band members whose cases were resolved last year weren't among those charged Monday. Brian Jones and Ryan Dean have already been sentenced after pleading no-contest to third-degree felony hazing last year.
Jones was sentenced last October to six months of community control, which strictly limits his freedom with measures including frequent check-ins with probation officials. He also was given two years of probation and required to perform 200 hours of community service.
Dean was sentenced the following month and received four years of probation and 200 hours of community service.
Judge Marc Lubet conferenced with all the attorneys involved before Monday's hearing and said they all agreed that because of a witness list that includes more than 100 people, a June trial date was unlikely.
He has set another status hearing in the case for August.
Since Champion's death FAMU has made sweeping changes to fight hazing. The band remains suspended and there still has not been a time announced for its return. The university is still searching to find a new director for the band.
FAMU's board held an emergency meeting last month to discuss the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the Champion family, though there were no final decisions made. Interim FAMU President Larry Robinson said the board was authorized to continue trying for a resolution with the family.
The Champions, who live in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Ga., claim university officials did not take enough action to stop hazing in the famed Marching 100 band before the death of their son. They rejected a previous offer to settle the case for $300,000.