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ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida A & M University's Marching 100 had played at a Super Bowl and before U.S. presidents. But one of the nation's most-celebrated marching bands had a dark secret: members were occasionally beaten with mallets, fists and drumsticks in a hazing initiation known as "crossing" Bus C.
The trial of four band members is scheduled to start Monday on charges of felony hazing and manslaughter, almost three years after drum major Robert Champion died from being beaten during that ritual. His death shone a spotlight on hazing at FAMU and other colleges, caused the band to be suspended for over a year and contributed to the resignation of FAMU's president.
Hours after a football game in Orlando in November 2011, band members boarded Bus C parked outside a hotel. They pummeled Champion, 26, and two other band members as they tried to wade their way through a pounding gauntlet of fists, drumsticks and mallets from the front to the back of the bus.
After making it to the back, Champion vomited and complained of trouble breathing. He soon fell unconscious and couldn't be revived. He died from hemorrhagic shock and his autopsy showed extensive internal bleeding.
Fifteen former band members originally were charged with manslaughter and hazing in the death of Champion, of Decatur, Georgia. All but the four remaining defendants have had their cases settled, and several of them will be called as witnesses to describe what happened on the bus.
Darryl Cearnel, Aaron Golson, Benjamin McNamee and Dante Martin have pleaded not guilty. But a late challenge by the attorneys for Cearnel, Golson and McNamee about the inclusion of an additional hazing charge could delay trials for those defendants. Once it begins, the trial could last two weeks.
State Attorney Jeff Ashton said he wants jurors to learn about the history of hazing in FAMU's marching band so they understand that what happened on the bus was a "consistent pattern."
"They got on the bus for one thing and that is to break the law," Ashton said at a recent hearing.
Defense attorneys have challenged Florida's anti-hazing law, claiming that statute is so vague that what happened on the band bus can be considered a competition, not hazing.
"The hazing statute, the way it is written is crazy," Dino Michaels, one of the attorneys for Martin, said at a recent pretrial hearing.
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