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FAMU hazing suspects turning themselves in

From Rich Phillips, CNN
updated 5:27 AM EDT, Fri May 4, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: FAMU says its goal is the "absolute eradication" of hazing
  • Investigation was botched, victim's mother says; sheriff's office defends investigation
  • FAMU drum major Robert Champion died after a hazing incident last November
  • Thirteen people have been charged in his death, 11 of them with felonies

(CNN) -- Eight of the 13 people facing hazing charges after the death of a Florida A&M University band member had turned themselves in by Thursday afternoon, a state police spokeswoman said.

All eight who have surrendered so far face felony charges in the November death of 26-year-old Robert Champion, said Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Of the remaining three who face the same count, two are in Georgia and one is in Delaware, she said.

"We're in contact with their attorneys or their families, and are expecting them to turn themselves in," Plessinger said.

Champion, a FAMU Marching 100 drum major, collapsed on a band bus after a November 2011 football game in Orlando. Medical examiners reported his death came within an hour of his being badly beaten during a hazing incident.

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Prosecutors announced charges in Champion's death Wednesday. Eleven of the 13 people are charged with hazing resulting in death, a felony, while two others face a misdemeanor hazing count.

Champion's mother has said her family is disappointed that the suspects didn't face more serious charges, and she told reporters Thursday that authorities botched the investigation into her son's death.

Pam Champion said authorities didn't properly process the bus for evidence and failed to immediately question students who were on the bus. And the family's lawyer, Chris Chestnut, said the family believes FAMU alumni coached the students on how to answer questions from police.

"We know they were caucusing to determine how to get away with murder," Chestnut said. He said the family plans to sue the school soon.

Deputy Ginette Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff's Office, defended its investigation.

"I know our deputies questioned everyone available," Rodriguez said. "I can assure you our detectives conducted a thorough and complete investigation, as we do in every case."

Champion's death brought renewed public scrutiny to hazing, a practice that has gone on for years despite what the Tallahassee university said had been efforts to eradicate the problem. Champion's mother called for FAMU's famous marching band to be disbanded for the upcoming year, saying the school "cannot go on with business as usual."

Nine students at University of Florida charged with hazing

"They need to clean out the filth to move forward. How can they allow the band out there?" she said Thursday. "They haven't done anything to safeguard students -- certainly not my son. My son was murdered."

The prosecutor who brought the charges, Orange County State Attorney Lawson Lamar, said Wednesday that the case built by investigators does not support a charge of murder.

Some university band members have said Champion died after taking part in an annual rite of passage called "Crossing Bus C," an initiation process in which pledges attempt to run down the center aisle from the front door of the bus to the back while being punched, kicked and otherwise assaulted by senior members.

An estimated 30 people were on the vehicle. An autopsy found "extensive contusions of his chest, arms, shoulder and back," as well as "evidence of crushing of areas of subcutaneous fat," medical examiners reported.

In a written statement, FAMU General Counsel Avery McKnight said the school "remains committed to the absolute eradication of hazing from all aspects of the university experience."

"The university will be able to address all aspects of the marching band after reviewing the documents and evidence flowing from the Champion case and from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's final report on its investigation of the marching band," McKnight said. "As for now, the marching band continues on indefinite suspension."

Those facing the more serious charges could serve up to six years in prison if convicted, Lamar said. The two suspects charged only with misdemeanors could be jailed for up to a year.

Of the eight who had surrendered on felony charges by Thursday morning, all but three had been released on $15,000 bail, Plessinger told CNN.

Two -- Jessie Baskin, 20, and Benjamin McNamee, 21, turned themselves in in Miami. Two others, Rikki Wills, 24, and Caleb Jackson, 23, surrendered in Tallahassee. Bryan Jones, 23, surrendered Wednesday night in Tampa, while 20-year-old Harold Finley turned himself in at the Palm Beach County jail.

Two others, 19-year-old Aaron Golson and 26-year-old Shawn Turner, surrendered in Gadsden County, near Tallahassee. Jackson, Golson and Finley had not yet made bail Thursday afternoon, Plessinger said.

Earlier this year, the Champions filed a negligence lawsuit against the bus company and its driver. Fabulous Coach Lines President Ray Land said before the suit was filed that the company's employees, who were not on the bus at the time, responded quickly after learning that there was an emergency, even following the ambulance transporting Champion to the hospital.

The school's band director, meanwhile, asked for full reinstatement Wednesday. An attorney for Julian White, who was placed on paid administrative leave shortly after Champion's death, said his client worked to root out hazing over 22 years as director.

"Dr. White remains disappointed that barely 48 hours after meeting with band members, that Robert Champion was killed in an extreme, horrific and illegal act of bullying," White's attorney, Chuck Hobbs, said in a statement.

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