ORLANDO, Florida — A former Florida A&M University band member was sentenced Friday to more than six years in prison for manslaughter and felony hazing in the death of a drum major, making him the first to receive prison time in the case.
Dante Martin received 77 months, but prosecutors wanted nine years in the beating death of 26-year-old Robert Champion during a brutal hazing ritual in November 2011.
Judge Renee Roche said she chose to deviate from the recommended sentencing guideline for Martin because she believed it had been demonstrated that Champion had been a "willing participant" in the ritual.
Champion's parents said afterward that they wanted to see a stiffer sentence to deter the hazing they called a quiet part of the FAMU's famed Marching 100 band for decades. The Champions also took issue with the contention their son consented to be hazed.
"If people are not held accountable for what they are doing, then what is the system about?" Pam Champion said. "That's the key is sending a strong message. That's what we're missing here."
About a dozen character witnesses testified on Martin's behalf. Roche said that the testimony and other letters of support demonstrated that Martin was "remarkable young man" and that she wanted to give him a chance to have a life after prison.
"Forgiveness doesn't have a role in the legal system. The role of the legal system is punishment," Roche said. "All other things are secondary."
Martin, who was shaking at times throughout the hearing, also addressed Champion's parents before the sentence was announced. He expressed remorse for his actions.
"This is something I will live with for the rest of my life," Martin said.
Martin was convicted in October during a trial in which prosecutors said he was the ringleader of the ritual. Defense attorney Dino Michaels said he planned to appeal the sentence.
Martin was the first of 15 former band members to stand trial in the death of Champion, who was from Decatur, Georgia.
The case brought into focus the culture of hazing in the band, which was suspended for more than a year while officials tried to clean up the program.
Previously, former band member Jessie Baskin received 51 weeks in county jail after pleading no contest to manslaughter charges. Several others have been sentenced to combinations of community service and probation. The final three former band members charged in Champion's death have trials set for April.
After the sentencing, Champion's parents briefly met outside the courtroom with members of Martin's family. Champion's father, Robert Champion, Sr., said he doesn't harbor any ill will toward any of them.
"This is a decision that (Martin) made. And sometimes you make a wrong decision, you have to pay the price for that," he said.
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