ORLANDO, Fla. - For the better part of three years, Pam Champion has repeatedly said a message had not been sent to those charged in the 2011 hazing death of her 26-year-old son. With tears trickling from her eyes Friday, she struggled to find words after a judge decided not to imprison the final three men tried for manslaughter and hazing in Robert Champion's death.
"I need a minute," she said softly before getting onto an elevator alongside her husband.
Judge Renee Roche sentenced 24-year-old Benjamin McNamee, 22-year-old Aaron Golson and 28-year-old Darryl Cearnel to 10 years' supervised probation. She announced her decision at the conclusion of a daylong hearing that at times included passionate testimony from the three men, their character witnesses and Champion's parents.
Roche said their probation could be terminated early if they demonstrate a willingness through community outreach to help eradicate hazing. The men had faced up to 20 years in prison after being convicted in April of manslaughter and hazing in the November 2011 death of Champion, who was from Decatur, Georgia.
Prosecutors were seeking a minimum sentence of nine years.
Roche said she chose to deviate from that recommendation because of evidence introduced at trial that Champion willingly participated in the hazing ritual. Champion collapsed and died after being pummeled by other members of FAMU's famed Marching 100 band with fists and instruments during a brutal ritual known as "crossing Bus C."
The incident occurred aboard a parked bus after a football game.
"Having done this for 20 years, there are a few cases that will stay with you. And this is one of them," Roche said before imposing her sentence.
Fifteen former FAMU band members were charged in the case. Most were sentenced to combinations of community service and probation for what the former judge in the case deemed to be minor roles.
Only one, purported ringleader Dante Martin, has received prison time. He was sentenced to 6 ½ years in January. Former band member Jessie Baskin was sentenced to 51 weeks in county jail after entering a no-contest plea to manslaughter. Another former member, Caleb Jackson, has pleaded no contest to manslaughter and is awaiting sentencing.
Several character witnesses testified on behalf of the defendants Friday, including family, clergy members and others. McNamee, Golson and Cearnel all testified on their own behalf, each expressing remorse directly to Champion's parents, who were seated in the courtroom gallery.
"Maybe you didn't mean to (kill Champion), but it was the choice you made," Robert Champion Sr. said. "Now you have to be held responsible."
During his testimony, Cearnel apologized to the Champion family for their loss, but said he only tried to save their son's life by administering CPR. "I have no problem taking responsibility for my actions, that's who I am," Cearnel said. "But I truly know what I did and didn't do. ... I tried to save a man's life. I was present, ... but I did not harm anybody."
McNamee submitted a file with more than 100 character letters and called Robert Champion "a good friend."
He added that he was "humbled and ashamed" to have participated in the hazing ritual that led to his death. "I am utterly and completely embarrassed to have played any role," McNamee said. "The traditions, ... I now realize, there can be a dark side."
Later, prosecutor Jeff Ashton asked what McNamee - who had expressed a desire to speak to youth about the dangers of participating in hazing - would say if he was asked by someone "Who killed Robert Champion?"
"I would say peer pressure killed Robert Champion," McNamee said.