The tor­ture bus

Would a griev­ing fam­ily get jus­tice for a col­lege rit­ual gone wrong?

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the story so far:

On 19 Novem­ber 2011, Robert Cham­pion agreed to take part in a col­lege ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­mony – or ‘haz­ing’. He ended up be­ing beaten so se­verely that he died. But who would pay the price?

The caseé team ter­ror

Robert Cham­pion was des­tined for great­ness.

For, as well as be­ing bright and con­sci­en­tious, he was a gifted clar­inet player.

In fact, he was so good that – af­ter get­ting a place at the pres­ti­gious Flor­ida Agri­cul­tural and Me­chan­i­cal Univer­sity (FAMU) – he im­me­di­ately won a place in the univer­sity’s march­ing band.

Flor­ida A&M’S March­ing 100 was a real one of a kind.

They’d played in front of every­one – from celebri­ties and pres­i­dents to a tele­vised au­di­ence of 106 mil­lion at the US Na­tional Foot­ball League Su­per Bowl.

Their rou­tines were spec­tac­u­lar. The mu­si­cians formed boats, planes and spelled out words with their bod­ies, all while march­ing and play­ing their in­stru­ments.

At ev­ery con­cert they played, the crowd went wild.

Robert was soon pro­moted to drum ma­jor, one of just six stu­dents who dressed in spe­cial uni­forms to lead the rest of the band on to the field.

But, although he’d earned a place as a se­nior mem­ber of the band, he had yet to earn the com­plete re­spect and loy­alty of his fel­low mu­si­cians.

To achieve that, he needed to endure a brutal rit­ual that had be­come a band tra­di­tion.

The univer­sity didn’t ap­prove of so-called ‘haz­ing’ cer­e­monies – il­le­gal in Flor­ida law – but that didn’t stop the Flor­ida A&M’S March­ing 100 car­ry­ing them out.

Robert, 26, had been in the band for a while without fac­ing the haz­ing, and more ju­nior mem­bers – who’d al­ready been through it –wanted to know when he would.

Re­luc­tantly, Robert agreed to fix a time and date.

‘I just want to get it over

with,’ he said to a friend .

So, on the night of 19 Novem­ber 2011, Robert made his way to an empty car park where one of the band’s buses was parked.

The cer­e­mony was called Cross­ing Bus C be­cause it chal­lenged those who took part to make it from the front of the bus to the back. Sounds sim­ple. But Robert would have to run the gaunt­let of fel­low band mem­bers wait­ing to in­flict as much pain as pos­si­ble.

As Robert got on the bus, per­cus­sion­ist Dante Martin, known as the ‘Pres­i­dent of Bus C’, or­dered him to sit down and crouch over, ready for what was called the ‘hot seat’.

Martin told the other mu­si­cians that Robert had never done it be­fore and to ‘take care’ of it.

They did as they were told, dish­ing out a brutal beat­ing that saw him punched, kicked and hit re­peat­edly with drum sticks.

When Robert tried to break free, he was dragged back to the front to start again.

As he was be­ing beaten in the ‘hot seat’, his friend and fel­low drum ma­jor Keon Hol­lis, 22, was at­tempt­ing to ‘cross over’ from the front to the back of the bus.

As well as be­ing beaten with fists, he was hit with a large wet floor cone and lifted up to the roof of the bus, then dropped to the floor.

When Hol­lis fi­nally made it to the other side, he had to watch as Robert at­tempted to fol­low him.

He couldn’t see ex­actly what was hap­pen­ing to him be­cause the bus was so packed, but he could hear kicks and punches mak­ing con­tact.

Robert was pushed into a seat and the mob re­fused to let him back out. As he sat there, it ap­peared that some­one was hang­ing from the lug­gage racks and stamp­ing on him.

A cou­ple of band mem­bers tried to help Robert, but they didn’t stand a chance against the power of the mob, hell bent on caus­ing as much dam­age as they could.

Fi­nally, an­other drum ma­jor man­aged to grab hold of Robert and pulled him free so he could touch the back wall of the bus.

It was over. Robert had sur­vived the or­deal… but not for long. He begged for wa­ter and some­one threw him a bot­tle of en­ergy drink. The bus started to empty, but Robert couldn’t move. He told those left be­hind, who’d par­tic­i­pated in the cer­e­mony but were now try­ing to help, that he couldn’t see any­thing even though his eyes were wide open. Sud­denly, Robert passed out and vom­ited. And then he stopped breath­ing. A band mem­ber per­formed CPR while an­other called for an am­bu­lance. But it was too late – Robert’s life could not be saved. An au­topsy later showed that he had ex­ten­sive, wide­spread con­tu­sions over his chest, right shoul­der, arms and back, along with ex­ten­sive in­ter­nal bleed­ing. It was con­cluded by the Med­i­cal Ex­am­iner that Robert died from haem­or­rhagic shock due to in­ter­nal bleed­ing from the blunt-force trauma that he ex­pe­ri­enced.

The po­lice launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and nine of those in­volved were even­tu­ally con­victed for their roles in the haz­ing, although they were mostly given com­mu­nity-ser­vice sen­tences and pro­ba­tion.

But Robert’s fam­ily wanted real jus­tice, and the pros­e­cu­tors de­cided to charge ring­leader Dante Martin with man­slaugh­ter and other charges in re­la­tion to the haz­ing of Robert and three oth­ers.

Martin re­fused to help de­tec­tives dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and chose not to tes­tify at his trial.

‘He was di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for di­rect­ing those other band mem­bers to hand out those sav­age beat­ings,’ said the As­sis­tant State At­tor­ney.

The jury was shown shock­ing pho­to­graphs of Robert’s body, prov­ing the ex­tent of his in­juries.

How­ever, Dante Martin’s lawyers told the court their client was no more re­spon­si­ble than other band mem­bers, who had got off lightly.

‘There was not a scin­tilla of ev­i­dence that he en­cour­aged any­one to hit or kick Mr Cham­pion or any­one else,’ said his lawyer.

So was the ‘Pres­i­dent of Bus C’ ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for Robert Cham­pion’s tragic death, or was an ex­am­ple sim­ply be­ing made of Dante Martin?

it was too late. Robert could not be saved

Ajury found Dant Dante Martin guilty of the man­slaugh­ter of Robert Cham­pion plus a charge of felony haz­ing re­sult­ing in death and two counts of mis­de­meanour.

He was later sen­tenced to more than six years in prison.

Robert Cham­pion’s mum spoke in court, say­ing, ‘Mr Martin, you have no idea what my days and my nights are like. You have no idea what they have be­come.’

Robert’s dad added that he felt some sym­pa­thy for Martin’s fam­ily but that ‘we’ve got to set an ex­am­ple that this has got to stop now’.

The scan­dal caused by Robert’s death also saw the band sus­pended and the Univer­sity’s Pres­i­dent re­sign.

Rt: Victim ROBE Gifted mu­si­cian

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