A prosecutor said Tuesday that a former band member charged in the death of a Florida A&M University drum major was the chief organizer of a brutal hazing ritual that has been a secret tradition at the school for years.
During opening statements in the manslaughter and hazing trial of 27-year-old Dante Martin, state attorney Jeff Ashton called the ritual that eventually killed Robert Champion in 2011 a "dark tradition" inside FAMU's band that Martin was in charge of the night Champion died.
But defense attorney Dino Michaels later told jurors that band members would testify that the ritual was more akin to a competition and not actually hazing.
A jury of four women and two men were selected to hear the case, which is expected to last a week. Martin faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
"The fact that this is a tradition is not a defense to the people involved," Ashton said.
Ashton described in detail what he said was the three-step process known as "crossing Bus C." He said Champion — who he said was against hazing — eventually decided to participate aboard a parked bus in November 2011 after a football game along with fellow band members Keon Hollis and Lizette Sanchez.
One at a time, Ashton said, fellow band members tried to make their way through a pounding gauntlet of fists, drumsticks and mallets from the front to the back of the bus. Sanchez and Hollis went first, followed by Champion.
But after Champion had completed the ritual, Ashton said he 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.
"He died because his friends beat him to death," Ashton said.
Ashton told jurors that evidence would show Martin, who he said was known as "the president of Bus C" directed it all, and "set upon a course of action ... to cause others to beat" Champion.
Martin has pleaded not guilty in the death of Champion, of Decatur, Georgia.
Michaels argued that though Martin had the title of president of Bus C, he did not "wield any power" and that he became leader only because he had previously completed the ritual faster than any other members. He also said of the ritual that Champion took part in and that its participation was voluntary.
"Not only was it voluntary, but so was whether or not you rode Bus C," Michaels said. "The crossing wasn't invented by Dante Martin. ... It was there for years and years."
He also said former band members could testify for the defense that his client never actually hit Champion. He said many of them also approached called crossing Bus C as an athletic event or competition.
That could be an important distinction, because the Florida statute on hazing is written so vaguely that what happened on the bus could be described as a competition, Michaels said. The defense lost a pretrial motion to have the hazing law ruled unconstitutional.
Champion's death has shined a spotlight on FAMU's national-acclaimed band, which had played at the Super Bowl and before U.S. presidents — to be suspended for more than a year. It also contributed to the resignation of the university's president.