By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Thirteen people were charged on Wednesday in the death of a drum major for Florida A&M University's celebrated marching band who was subjected to a brutal hazing ritual last November, a state prosecutor said.
Rather than face murder charges, 11 of the defendants were accused of a third-degree felony for "hazing with death," punishable under Florida law by a maximum of six years in prison, said Florida State Attorney Lawson Lamar. Two others face a misdemeanor charge, he said.
The charges capped a lengthy investigation into the death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion, who died on a band charter bus after the university's renowned "Marching 100" band performed at the annual Florida Classic football game.
"I was a little disappointed. I thought the charges would be a little harsher," said the drum major's mother, Pam Champion. She called for a federal law that would make hazing a more serious crime.
So far only one of those charged has been arrested, said officials, who declined to name any of the defendants in order not to tip them off. Almost all are believed to be students who were traveling on the bus with Champion.
Champion's death was "nothing short of an American tragedy," said Lamar, state attorney for Orange and Osceola counties in central Florida. "Hazing in our nation's colleges and universities ... is a tradition we cannot tolerate in America."
The 26-year-old's death was ruled a homicide as a result of a "hemorrhagic shock" caused by "blunt force trauma" during the hazing, according to the medical examiner's report.
"His death is not linked to one sole strike but is attributed to multiple blows," said Lamar. "He had extensive contusions on his chest, arms, shoulder and back."
The beating took place while the bus was parked at an Orlando hotel following a band performance at the high-profile football game.
Lamar said that under a Florida law passed last year, a hazing that results in serious bodily injury or death is considered a homicide punishable by a "felony level penalty," not a homicide warranting murder charges.
FAMILY SEARCHES FOR ANSWERS
The family's lawyer Chris Chestnut blamed a poor investigation for the lack of murder charges. Chestnut said authorities failed to seize evidence on the bus the night of Champion's death, or separate and immediately interview the other students.
Chestnut said the students rode the same bus back to Tallahassee the next morning, and the bus was cleaned and put back into service.
He said the family's own civil investigation had turned up students who said they had received text messages from alumni "on how not to get caught."
The Champion family have said they are still searching for answers as to why their son was targeted. They have confirmed that he was gay, but rejected what they called "rumors" that his sexual orientation made him a hazing target.
Pam Champion said her son was defined not by his sexuality but by his leadership skills. She said he was known to reject hazing.
"Perhaps one of the motives might have been retaliatory," she said.
Champion's father has said he knew nothing about the 50-year culture of hazing at the FAMU band when he sent his son off to school. He said they regularly spoke by phone, and that he always ended the calls by asking whether his son had anything he needed to tell his dad.
"He never mentioned anything to me about hazing," Robert Champion Sr. said.
The FAMU case has highlighted a nationwide problem at universities as well as the military.
Students at Boston University are under investigation for an incident this month involving five people who were found covered in condiments, bound together and shivering in their underwear in an off-campus house, police said.
The five male BU students, were victims of an apparent fraternity hazing incident.
Three U.S. Marines were accused of hazing a fellow Marine who later killed himself last year. One Marine pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days of confinement and a demotion. Two other Marines were acquitted by a military jury.
FAMU in January banned all student organizations from recruiting new members until fall and canceled summer band camp.
Two FAMU music professors recently resigned after a Tallahassee police report alleged they were present at a band party where students were hazed, a lawyer told Reuters.
Tallahassee defense attorney Mutaqee Akbar said that both men resigned after receiving letters from the university notifying them of its intent to dismiss them.
(Writing by David Adams; Editing by Tom Brown and Xavier Briand)