ORLANDO - Thirteen people were charged Wednesday in one of the biggest college hazing cases ever prosecuted in the United States, accused in the death of a Florida A&M University drum major who authorities say was mercilessly pummeled by fellow members of the marching band.
The charges came more than five months after Robert Champion, 26, died aboard a chartered bus parked outside an Orlando hotel following a performance against a rival school.
While the most sensational hazing cases have typically involved fraternities, sororities, or athletic teams, the FAMU killing in November exposed a brutal tradition among marching bands at some colleges around the United States.
“The death . . . is nothing short of an American tragedy,’’ said State Attorney Lawson Lamar. “No one should have expected that his college experience would include being pummeled to death.’’
Eleven defendants were charged with hazing resulting in death, a felony, and misdemeanor offenses that together could bring nearly six years in prison. Two others face misdemeanor charges.
It was not immediately clear whether those charged were all students or whether they included faculty members or others involved in the road trip.
By Wednesday afternoon, two students were in custody at the Leon County jail in Tallahassee: Rikki Wills, 24, and Caleb Jackson, 23. Both are charged with felony hazing resulting in death.
Wills, who was also a drum major, declined to comment when reached by phone. No working phone number was available for Jackson. The names of the 11 others have not been released.
Jackson was serving probation for a felony battery charge, according to state and local records. He was arrested in 2009 by Tallahassee Community College police for battery and resisting without violence and arrested again by Tallahassee police a year later, according to county jail records.
Champion had bruises on his chest, arms, and back and died of internal bleeding, Lamar said. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers the drum major was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus.
The prosecutor gave no motive for the beating. But witnesses said Champion might have been targeted because he opposed the routine hazing that went on in the marching band or because he was gay, according to his family’s attorney.
Legal analysts had predicted more serious charges, such as manslaughter or second-degree murder.
Champion’s mother, Pam, said she was glad charges were brought but disappointed they were not more severe. “I thought it should send a harsher message,’’ she said.
Lamar said prosecutors did not have the evidence to bring more serious charges.
“The testimony obtained to date does not support a charge of murder, in that it does not contain the elements of murder,’’ he said. “We can prove participation in hazing and a death. We do not have a blow or a shot or a knife thrust that killed Mr. Champion. It is an aggregation of things which exactly fit the Florida statute as written by the Legislature.’’
Hazing in Florida was upgraded to a felony in 2005 following the death of a University of Miami student four years earlier. Chad Meredith was drunk and died trying to swim across a lake at the behest of his fraternity brothers. No charges were filed, but a civil jury ordered the fraternity to pay Meredith’s parents $12 million.
Champion’s death has jeopardized the future of FAMU’s legendary marching band, which has performed at the Grammys, presidential inaugurations, and Super Bowls and represented the United States in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. FAMU, based in Tallahassee, has suspended the band and set up a task force on curtailing hazing.
Hazing has long been practiced in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges like FAMU in the South, where the band is often as revered as the football team and members are campus celebrities.
Much of the hazing reported at FAMU has involved students trying to get into certain cliques within the band.
Solomon Badger, chairman of the FAMU board of trustees, said the school is doing everything it can to eradicate hazing. He said of the charges: “I hope this wraps its arm around everything we have been plagued with the last six months.’’
Richard Sigal, a retired sociology professor at the County College of Morris in Randolph, N.J., who holds antihazing workshops at schools, said he could not recall another hazing case with so many defendants.