ORLANDO, Fla. – Prosecutors rested their care Thursday and the judge denied a standard defense request to acquit the final three former Florida A&M band members charged in the hazing death of a drum major.
Defense attorneys said that prosecutors had failed to show there was a conspiracy and that they couldn't prove anyone was directly responsible for the death of 26-year-old Robert Champion in November 2011. State Attorney Jeff Ashton told the judge that if she accepted that theory, "this can happen and no one is responsible."
Circuit Judge Renee Roche agreed with prosecutors, describing the hazing ritual that led to Champion's death as "a tried and true process with specific steps, followed in a specific way and with specific elements."
Champion's beating death aboard a band bus parked outside a hotel after a football game exposed a culture of hazing within the school's famed band. Champion, of Decatur, Georgia, went through what Ashton described as a three-step process that culminated with him running a gauntlet and being punched, kicked and struck with band instruments as he ran to the back in a ritual known as "crossing Bus C." He collapsed and died a short time later.
Benjamin McNamee, Darryl Cearnel and Aaron Golson are the final three defendants charged in Champion's death. If convicted of manslaughter and hazing charges, each faces up to 15 years in prison.
On Thursday, the last prosecution witness was a pathologist who testified that Champion died from internal bleeding caused by blows to his body. Champion lost enough blood to go into shock, said Sara Irrgang, a former associated medical examiner.
At one point, the pathologist's testimony was halted briefly after a juror became upset over graphic photos and had to compose himself outside of the courtroom.
McNamee's attorney, Michael Dicembre, called a former band member who had been on the bus as Champion was trying to make his way to the back of the bus.
Lasherry Codner testified that she had gotten on the bus to get a phone charger she had left behind and decided to stay to offer words of encouragement as the ritual was in progress. She said that two of the defendants -- McNamee and Golson -- were at the front of the bus as Champion was making his way in the middle of the bus. Under cross-examination, she conceded that she didn't know what role McNamee and Golson had played in the ritual before she boarded the bus. Codner had previously pleaded no contest to felony hazing and avoided prison.
Ashton asked her whether the idea of friends beating each other bothered her.
"The purpose is to be a part of a family," Codner said.