Lawyers representing a man convicted in the death of Robert Champion, a member of Florida A&M University’s renowned “Marching 100” band, tried to convince the Florida Supreme Court that a hazing ritual that resulted in Champion’s death was a “competition” authorized by state law.
Champion, one of the band’s drum majors, died in November 2011 after participating in a decades-old ritual known as “crossing Bus C,” in which band members are hit and slapped as they cross from the front to the back of a bus.
Champion’s high-profile death sparked international attention and resulted in the ouster of the historically black university’s then-president, James Ammons, and long-serving band director, Julian White.
Dante Martin, a member of the Marching 100 and the “president” of Bus C, was charged with manslaughter, felony hazing resulting in death and two counts of hazing related to Champion’s death. An Orange County jury convicted Martin on all counts, and a judge in 2015 sentenced him to 77 months in prison.
Martin, now 30, is an inmate at Wakulla Work Camp, according to the state Department of Corrections website.
Martin’s lawyer, Rupak Shah, is asking the state court to overturn the conviction because the ritual was a “competition,” as defined by state law, and therefore exempt from banned hazing activities.
Under Florida law, hazing “does not include customary athletic events or other similar contests or competitions or any activity or conduct that furthers a legal and legitimate objective.”
Shah argued in court filings that the “acts constituting a ‘competition’ are lawful under the statute and that the jury should find, among other things, that the death of Mr. Champion was an excusable homicide.”
But the justices seemed skeptical of Shah’s arguments as they questioned the lawyer Wednesday morning.
“What ordinary, customary competition is there [in] beating of someone?” Justice Peggy Quince asked.
“There are customary events, where beatings, boxing is recognized,” Shah answered.
Justice Barbara Pariente was even more pointed, asking if “hazings are competitions to see who can stay alive and who dies.”
But Shah said the hazing rite met one dictionary’s definition of “competition,” which requires “perseverance and endurance to overcome an obstacle.”
Shah’s rationale did not appear to satisfy Pariente.
“The idea that you’re advancing a theory of competition, that you’re equating this with a boxing match or a football game or hockey that gets out of hand, but that’s not what this was,” she said later.
Shah nevertheless persisted, repeatedly calling the “crossing of Bus C” a ritual that amounts to a competition.
“It’s a contest for honor and prestige, and in those circumstances what happened on this bus could properly be considered a competition,” he insisted.
On Wednesday, several justices also appeared unconvinced by arguments made by Stephen Turner, a lawyer representing the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which filed a “friend of the court” brief in the case.
Turner said the hazing law doesn’t cover the marching band’s hazing practices because the Marching 100 is not a “student organization” such as a fraternity or sorority. Instead, bands, similar to football teams, are “student activities,” according to Turner.
Turner also pointed out that Champion, whose death came after the annual “Florida Classic” weekend, which includes a football game between Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman University, wasn’t forced to cross the bus.
The drum major willingly participated in the hazing ritual, Turner argued.
“This is just an honored tradition,” Turner said. “Just because a tragedy results doesn’t mean that we have to reach out and punish everyone that the statute doesn’t apply to.”
But the hazing activity doesn’t have to be forced to be a crime, argued Assistant Attorney General Kristen Davenport. And whether the person who was hazed consented is not a defense under Florida law, she added.
“The Legislature has determined it doesn’t matter whether he [Champion] wanted to do this,” she told the court. “This statute is trying to protect society from exactly this kind of situation.”
Pariente noted that other band members said they didn’t “cross the bus” but felt obliged to participate.
“There’s some very strange aspects to this, which are really shaming those that don’t do it,” she said.
Davenport also rejected Shah’s contention that the anti-hazing law violates constitutional freedom-of-speech guarantees.
“There’s no First Amendment right to beat somebody up. There’s nothing that infringes on their right to get together, to chant, to march, to make music. What they can’t do is beat up one of their members,” she said.
In November 2016, a three-judge panel of the Fifth District Court of Appeal rejected arguments by Martin’s lawyers regarding the constitutionality of the state law.
“The defendant asserts that Florida’s hazing statute encroaches upon constitutionally protected speech or conduct and, thus, the statute is overbroad; however, he does not articulate how the statute is susceptible of application to speech or conduct protected by the First Amendment. … The defendant has not demonstrated that the hazing statute criminalizes any speech or conduct protected by the First Amendment; therefore, his overbreadth challenge fails,” said the ruling, written by appeals court Judge William Palmer and joined by Judges Thomas Sawaya and Jay Cohen.
In 2015, the family of Champion settled a lawsuit against the university by accepting a $1.1 million payment and an apology from the school.
Dara Kam reports for the News Service of Florida.