The first of a dozen defendants charged in the hazing death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion got off easy with the judge today, but not with Champion's mother.
Champion, 26, was a member of the college's famed "Marching 100" band when he collapsed and died Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel after a football game.
Champion's parents sat steely-eyed and stared straight ahead as the judge explained his reasoning for sentencing Brian Jones, 24, to two years of probation and 200 hours of community service.
Moments earlier, the judge made an exception and allowed Champion's mother Pamela Champion to directly and sternly address Jones. She explained her thought process when deciding what to say to him.
"I thought about expressing the agony and pain that my family has gone through because of you. I thought of expressing the torment I go through each and every day knowing that I will never see Robert because of you," she said. "I even thought of expressing my anger, my disappointment in all the deceitful lies, the corruption, the ruthlessness, the mishandling of my son's murder."
In the end, she said, she decided to pose a series of questions to Jones. She asked him how long he could hide the truth, how he could live with the lie and what punishment he deserved.
"The judge had stated that your part in Robert's death was really minimal, but you and I know that's not true," she said. "It will always be there haunting you. We both know that."
Champion's father Robert Champion also addressed the court, speaking with "a lot of mixed emotions and a heavy heart."
"This is an opportunity that we can take to tell the world that we are not going to accept hazing. It's a thing of the past and it starts now with holding these people responsible for what they did," he said. "It's been going on too long and this is time to make a statement."
Jones' mother expressed her "deepest" and "sincerest" sympathy to the Champion family, but pleaded with the judge to show mercy to her son who told her that he was not involved in Champion's death.
"I've taught Brian to talk to me and tell me the truth," Jacquelin Jones said. "I'm convinced that my son told me the truth."
Jones was the last to tearfully address the court.
"I stand before you today still in shock, but with a sound mind and humble heart," he sniffed. "I just want the world to know that I'm sorry for the death of your son Robert. I truly am. No words or anything I could do would be sufficient enough to express how regretful I am of the loss of Robert."
He said the band's behavior was "completely inexcusable" and that the events of the night "went further than anyone imagined, wanted or thought." Jones said his "heart continues to ache at the thought of what happened."
Jones said he did not know Champion, but had heard of his high character, academic talents and precise marching skills. Through tears, he called Champion a "role model for excellence."
Jones was charged with a third-degree felony. He entered a no-contest plea on Oct. 9 after originally pleading not guilty.
Judge Marc Lubet called the sentencing an "extremely difficult situation" and said he had to look at Jones in terms of a ladder of culpability and prosecutors did not have any evidence that Jones hit or hurt Champion. Lubet quoted Abraham Lincoln before announcing the sentence, saying, "Mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice."
First Sentencing in Hazing Death
"I could destroy his life right this minute, but, once again, based on all the facts of this case, I think the quote from Abraham Lincoln is very, very pertinent," Lubet said. "I think you're worth saving."
The judge even commended Jones for being the first defendant to come forward and "take some responsibility."
In addition to the probation and community service, Jones was ordered to have no contact with the Champion family unless they were to initiate it and no contact with any of the other defendants.
Thirteen FAMU band members have been charged in relation to Champion's death. Eleven of the band members face felony hazing charges and the other two face misdemeanor hazing charges. The defendants have pleaded not guilty.
In May, over 2,000 pages of evidence from the investigation into Champion's death were released by the Florida District Attorney's Office, which delivered a blow-by-blow of the events from the night of Robert Champion's death.
Champion endured a lethal pummeling down the aisle of a pitch-black bus that rocked from the force of the violence inside, according to the documents.
Champion struggled, with a female band member holding him back to prolong the punishment, through a gauntlet of band mates who used their fists, feet, straps and sticks to pound him into unconsciousness.