3 con­victed in FAMU death given decade-long pro­ba­tion


For the bet­ter part of three years, Pam Cham­pion has re­peat­edly said a mes­sage had not been sent to those charged in the 2011 haz­ing death of her 26-year-old son.

With tears trick­ling from her eyes Fri­day, she strug­gled to find words af­ter a judge de­cided not to im­prison the fi­nal three men tried for man­slaugh­ter and haz­ing in Robert Cham­pion’s death.

“I need a minute,” she said softly be­fore get­ting onto an el­e­va­tor along­side her hus­band.

Judge Re­nee Roche sen­tenced 24-year-old Ben­jamin McNamee, 22-year-old Aaron Gol­son and 28-year-old Darryl Cear­nel to 10 years’ su­per­vised pro­ba­tion. She an­nounced her de­ci­sion at the con­clu­sion of a day­long hear­ing that at times in­cluded pas­sion­ate tes­ti­mony from the three men, their char­ac­ter wit­nesses and Cham­pion’s par­ents.

Bru­tal Rit­ual

Roche said their pro­ba­tion could be ter­mi­nated early if they demon­strate a will­ing­ness through com­mu­nity out­reach to help erad­i­cate haz­ing.

The men had faced up to 20 years in prison af­ter be­ing con­victed in April of man­slaugh­ter and haz­ing in the Novem­ber 2011 death of Cham­pion, who was from De­catur, Ge­or­gia. Pros­e­cu­tors were seek­ing a min­i­mum sen­tence of nine years.

Roche said she chose to de­vi­ate from that rec­om­men­da­tion be­cause of ev­i­dence in­tro­duced at trial that Cham­pion will­ingly par­tic­i­pated in the haz­ing rit­ual. Cham­pion col­lapsed and died af­ter be­ing pum­meled by other mem­bers of FAMU’s famed March­ing 100 band with fists and in­stru­ments dur­ing a bru­tal rit­ual known as “cross­ing Bus C.” The in­ci­dent oc­curred aboard a parked bus af­ter a football game.

“Hav­ing done this for 20 years, there are a few cases that will stay with you. And this is one of them,” Roche said be­fore im­pos­ing her sen­tence.

Fif­teen for­mer FAMU band mem­bers were charged in the case. Most were sen­tenced to com­bi­na­tions of com­mu­nity ser­vice and pro­ba­tion for what the for­mer judge in the case deemed to be mi­nor roles.

Only one, pur­ported ring­leader Dante Martin, has re­ceived prison time. He was sen­tenced to 6 1/2 years in Jan­uary. For­mer band mem­ber Jessie Baskin was sen­tenced to 51 weeks in county jail af­ter en­ter­ing a no-con­test plea to man­slaugh­ter. Another for­mer mem­ber, Caleb Jack­son, has pleaded no con­test to man­slaugh­ter and is await­ing sen­tenc­ing.

Sev­eral char­ac­ter wit­nesses tes­ti­fied on be­half of the de­fen­dants Fri­day, in­clud­ing fam­ily, clergy mem­bers and oth­ers. McNamee, Gol­son and Cear­nel all tes­ti­fied on their own be­half, each ex­press­ing re­morse di­rectly to Cham­pion’s par­ents, who were seated in the court­room gallery.

“Maybe you didn’t mean to (kill Cham­pion), but it was the choice you made,” Robert Cham­pion Sr. said. “Now you have to be held re­spon­si­ble.”

Dur­ing his tes­ti­mony, Cear­nel apol­o­gized to the Cham­pion fam­ily for their loss, but said he only tried to save their son’s life by ad­min­is­ter­ing CPR.

“I have no prob­lem tak­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for my ac­tions, that’s who I am,” Cear­nel said. “But I truly know what I did and didn’t do. ... I tried to save a man’s life. I was present, ... but I did not harm any­body.”

McNamee sub­mit­ted a file with more than 100 char­ac­ter letters and called Robert Cham­pion “a good friend.” He added that he was “hum­bled and ashamed” to have par­tic­i­pated in the haz­ing rit­ual that led to his death.

“I am ut­terly and com­pletely em­bar­rassed to have played any role,” McNamee said. “The tra­di­tions, ... I now re­al­ize, there can be a dark side.”

Later, pros­e­cu­tor Jeff Ash­ton asked what McNamee — who had ex­pressed a de­sire to speak to youth about the dan­gers of par­tic­i­pat­ing in haz­ing — would say if he was asked by some­one “Who killed Robert Cham­pion?”

“I would say peer pres­sure killed Robert Cham­pion,” McNamee said.

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