Florida A&M hazing history allowed in death trial; can't say drum major killed was gay

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ORLANDO, Florida — A history of hazing among Florida A&M band members can be mentioned by prosecutors in the trial of four ex-members charged in a drum major's 2011 death, but the judge said Wednesday there should be no mention that the student killed was gay.

Judge Rene Roche also denied defense motions to drop manslaughter charges against the four defendants, and one challenging the constitutionality of Florida's anti-hazing law. It was the last hearing scheduled before the trial next week.

Fifteen former band members were charged with manslaughter and hazing in the November 2011 death of 26-year-old Robert Champion, of Decatur, Georgia. All but the four defendants have had their cases settled.

Champion died after running through a gauntlet of band members who hit him with drumsticks, mallets and fists as he walked through the bus outside an Orlando hotel.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed no band members have said in depositions that Champion's sexual orientation played a role in the hazing, so they asked that it not be brought up during the trial. The judge agreed.

Defense attorneys also asked that information from the autopsy report and some testimony from a coroner be excluded from the trial. Defense attorneys say Champion's body may have been tampered with when it left the custody of the medical examiner's office so organs could be harvested. The judge said she would make a ruling after reviewing the coroner's deposition. Defense attorneys also argued that the autopsy photos were prejudicial and should be excluded, but the judge denied that request.

State Attorney Jeff Ashton and defense attorneys also argued whether witnesses would be able to use the word "hazing." Defense attorneys claimed witnesses weren't experts in defining what hazing is or how to interpret the statute.

But Ashton said having witnesses use the word "is an essential aspect."

"It's absolutely essential that these witnesses testify, 'This is what hazing is. This is what I was doing,'" Ashton said.

The judge ruled witnesses could use the word "hazing" if they had previously read the statute defining it, such as in the anti-hazing pledges FAMU band members had to sign.

Although the trial start is set for next Monday, there is a chance it could be delayed. Defense attorneys have objected to a change in the criminal complaint that added two additional charges of hazing. They claim they weren't given the opportunity to question witnesses about those charges during depositions. The judge planned to make a ruling by Monday.

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