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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Crime Writer on the Robert Champion Case

Robert Champion, crime, HBCU, hate crime, hazing, court, FAMU, National News
Who knew we should be afraid of John Phillips Souza wielders?

Some years ago when I was working at a TV station in the investigative unit, I first learned the term "hazing."  I had gone through my high school and college years blissfully unexposed to the practice of "initiating" young people into a club or team by the administration of various blows and tortures, usually committed by other students, sometimes even at the direction of an adult such as a coach.

Hazing is supposed to be some kind of camaraderie builder, I was assured. But as I listened to the distraught outpourings of a mother of a hazed teen, it sounded a lot more like Lord of the Flies* to me than team spirit.  I was horrified at the evidence I found to back her up. We did a big investigation on the high school's hazing tradition and our story became huge news.

Now that my career focuses on stories about crime, I wonder what exactly separates hazing from another common practice, one we baldly call "assault."  When a person is systematically beaten and subjected to other physical cruelties, we call the perpetrators "criminals." We take unpleasant mug shots of these criminals, throw them in prisons, and cast disdainful looks at them when we see them in courtrooms, assured of the evil nature tainting their souls.  When they gather together in organized groups to carry out these assaults we find them especially horrific and pass legislation against these groups e.g. anti-gang laws, RICO, and other racketeering statues.

But whoever thought of marching bands as a criminal enterprise?

Mob boss: " Do you have any experience in thuggery?"

Young recruit: "Yes, your Donship, I come to you highly trained. You will be pleased."

Mob boss: "You are very confident, young one. Just what outfit could give you such credentials?"

Young recruit: "Sir, I hail from....a marching band!"

Mob boss, wiping a tear: "O blessed day!"

Young recruit: "Not only that, I was in the clarinet section."

Mob boss: "Skip kissing my ring, let me clasp you to my bosom!"

The death of 26 year old Florida A & M drum major Robert Champion is one of the most horrific hazing incidents I've ever heard of. Not just because the earnest young man with the chin strap and the whistle in his pursed lips died, but because of who was involved in the hazing.

Florida A&M University hazing scandal
Robert Champion epitomizing all-American college fun

In the big hazing story we did at the TV station, the kids involved were football players and the coaches were complicit. Football, we all understand, involves brutality by its definition. Teaching boys to be brutal, make the tackle, hurt the opponent...hazing. There's a certain synergy there.

But musicians are supposed to "soothe the savage breast," are they not? Yes, the songs played on football fields are vigorous tunes with rousing beats but the idea is to channel the fan frenzy into something legal and civilized, isn't it?  Kids who join the band are supposed to be, in some fundamental way, characteristically different from boys who join football teams. After all, those who go on to play pro ball may even be given extra bonus money by their coaches if they cause medical harm to an opponent (note the sarcasm please, "Bonusgate" is a whole 'nuther topic).  Musicians are usually asked to play in harmony with their peers and colleagues, the same tune, the same page, the same note.

And yet we now learn that one of the most famous marching bands in college history is divided into cliques, defined by an instrument (clarinet, tuba, etc.) and characterized by a tribalism that would make an anthropologist gulp.  In fact, here in Arizona, we are blessed with the world class Musical Instrument Museum, staffed by the globe's finest professional experts in the field of who plays what instrument and why. The place is chock full of guitars made from gas cans and drums fashioned out of garbage pails, and other legacies of the human soul reaching for the salving effect of music under the most oppressive of circumstances.
Musical Instrument Museum
The Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale--they study instruments 

 Music can rouse a nation to revolution, Chopin's Polonaise comes immediately to mind, but can experts explain why clarinetists had to beat kids before they could pucker up and play? (As part of the FAMU investigation, 4 clarinetists have been charged in the assaults of 5 students who were lined up by height and systematically punched and more.)

When we picture the woodwind section, we do not conjure up mugshots the way we do in other criminal assault cases. Kids don't practice for years in front of sheet music because they can't wait for the chance to pummel someone. Hazing may be the masque of a devoted sadist, but it can also sweep up well-intentioned youngsters, pursuing a dream, succumbing to institutionalized peer pressure, a peer pressure often coated with a veneer of authority, or even explicitly overseen by real authority figures.

In Florida, where Robert Champion was beaten to death on a bus full of his fellow musicians, prosecutors have charged several young people with felony hazing, but not with any form of homicide. Champion's parents are understandably upset.

But law is, as Lady Justice will tell you, a delicate balancing act. Most homicide charges require a defined criminal intent. They also require a clear nexus between the cause of death and the defendant. While we could say a whole busload of young people were guilty, when each individual kid is examined, we may find some cowering under a seat, terrified, or one or two even actively trying to help Robert. Of those who certainly did participate in the beating, will a lawyer successfully argue that his particular client not only had no criminal intent, but deliberately pulled his punch as Robert came staggering past? Which blow did kill the young man? One delivered early on with full force and fury by an upperclassman or perhaps that last little tap by a frightened frosh? When you look at the realities of a court trial, you see the horrible specter of possibly all the defendants getting off scot-free by such defenses.

So Florida can be glad it passed an anti-hazing statute in 2005. This gives prosecutors firmer ground upon which to pursue to justice. The violent clarinetists, flautists, and tuba players may only face a maximum of 6 years for the painful death of someone supposed to be their friend, but at least prosecutors have a fightin' chance of making it stick.  In a perfect world, the death of Robert Champion would be given its full weight on his side of the scales of justice.

But in a perfect world, Robert Champion would be twirling a baton in true camaraderie with his bandmates at upcoming graduation celebrations instead of starring in their upcoming criminal trials.

Reports say that the hazing within college marching bands is not only common but has a long history, it still comes as a shock to me, as much as the day I first heard the word "hazing" and explored the twisted tradition in high school football players.

As a crime writer, I can picture all too well what is ahead for the Champion family. The trial(s) will be a grueling marathon of gritted teeth and sudden, silent tears. My heart goes out to them. Rest in peace, Robert.

*If you haven't read Lord of the Flies, you should. Proper British boys in short pants degenerate into cruel, scapegoating savages.

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