Benjamin McNamee (left), one of three men charged in the fatal hazing of FAMU drum major Robert Champion (right). (AP Photos)
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The last three defendants in the death of a Florida A&M drum major were convicted of manslaughter and hazing Friday, ending a three-year-old case that shined a light on ritualized hazing within the school’s famed band
The six-member jury deliberated for 2 1/2 hours before reaching a verdict.
Benjamin McNamee, Darryl Cearnel and Aaron Golson were the final three defendants charged in 26-year-old Robert Champion’s death in 2011.
They showed no reaction after the verdict was read in the Orlando courtroom. Champion’s parents bowed their heads slightly.
A total of 15 defendants were charged originally.
Champion’s beating death aboard a band bus parked outside an Orlando hotel after a football game exposed a culture of hazing within the school’s band.
Champion ran through a gauntlet of fellow band members who punched, kicked and struck him with instruments. He collapsed and died a short time later.
Jurors began deliberating Friday afternoon, following closing arguments from a prosecutor and a team of defense attorneys.
Champion’s death was the result of a hazing tradition that was ingrained in the school’s famed band, said State Attorney Jeff Ashton.
“Tradition: As a result of that, Robert Champion was beaten to death by his friends. They didn’t beat him because they hated him. It was a tradition,” Ashton said.
Known as “Crossing Bus C,” the ritual required band members to try to make it to the back of the bus with as many as three dozen fellow members doing everything to stop them. Succeeding through “the crossing” was a way to earn the respect and acceptance of fellow band members. Other parts of the ritual included “the hot seat,” when band members stayed in bus seats with heads between their legs as other band members beat them, as well as “prepping,” when a shirtless band member was slapped on the back and chest.
Champion collapsed after going through “the crossing” in November 2011 on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel. He died a short time later. Two other band members passed through the bus ordeal before Champion, and survived.
Defense attorneys challenged the testimony of other band members who were on the bus, contending that prosecutors never proved any individual was responsible for Champion’s death. Attorneys for Benjamin McNamee, Aaron Golson and Darryl Cearnel also said there was no conspiracy, as prosecutors claim. If convicted, the defendants each face 15 years in prison.
“They can’t prove the crimes he is facing,” said Michael Dicembre, McNamee’s attorney.
Cearnel’s attorney, Anthony Britt, told jurors that some witnesses were lying to deflect their involvement in the hazing.
“Show me the evidence!” Britt said. “The state has not proven their case.”
Closing arguments were delayed after Ashton wanted to find out if jurors were influenced by the sight of two defendants praying outside the courtroom.
Almost all of the six jurors and two alternates said they saw Golson and McNamee praying, but they said it wouldn’t influence them during deliberations.
The jurors had initially told the judge they were having trouble with the definition of criminal conspiracy.
About an hour after retiring to the deliberation room, they sent a note to the judge asking for help.
“We are struggling with the conspiracy portion of this verdict,” the jury foreman told Judge Renee Roche when they were brought back into the courtroom.
Roche sent them back to the jury room, asking them to clarify what information they were seeking.
The next time they emerged, they had a verdict.
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