TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – More than seven years after the death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion, the state Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the conviction of a fellow band member and rejected arguments that a hazing law was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court unanimously rejected an appeal by Dante Martin, who was convicted on manslaughter and hazing charges in an incident that drew national attention. Champion suffered fatal injuries in November 2011 in Orlando during a ritual known as "crossing Bus C."
During the ritual, members of Florida A&M’s renowned “Marching 100” band were struck repeatedly as they crossed from the front of the bus to the back, and Martin was "president" of Bus C, according to court records. Champion passed out after finishing the crossing and later was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Martin, now 31, was sentenced to 77 months in prison after being found guilty by an Orange County jury of manslaughter, felony hazing resulting in death and two counts of misdemeanor hazing. But in appealing, he argued that the state’s hazing law was unconstitutional because it was overly broad and vague.
In a 19-page opinion written by Chief Justice Charles Canady, the Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a ruling by the 5th District Court of Appeal that rejected the arguments.
In part, Martin’s attorneys contended that the hazing law was overbroad because it criminalized constitutionally protected speech and conduct, but Canady said prosecution under the law required a showing of “serious bodily injury or death” for a felony charge or a “substantial risk of physical injury or death” for a misdemeanor charge.
“The focus of the criminal hazing statute thus undoubtedly is on physical harm and the risk of physical harm,” Canady wrote. “Any impact on speech or expressive conduct is insubstantial and purely incidental to the purpose of preventing physical harm.”
Similarly, Canady turned down the arguments about vagueness.
“Here, at most, the various detailed arguments that Martin raises concerning the terms of the hazing statute do not point to anything that goes beyond run-of-the-mill ambiguity,” the opinion said. “And no actual ambiguity in the terms of the statute has been identified by Martin that has any bearing on the offenses for which Martin was convicted.”
Justices Peggy Quince, Ricky Polston, Jorge Labarga and Alan Lawson fully joined Canady’s opinion. Justices Barbara Pariente and R. Fred Lewis agreed with the result but did not sign on to the opinion.
Champion's death came during the annual "Florida Classic" weekend, which includes a football game between Florida A&M and Bethune-Cookman University.
Martin is housed at the Tallahassee Community Release Center and is scheduled to be released in April 2020, according to the Florida Department of Corrections website. In 2015, the family of Champion settled a lawsuit against the university by accepting a $1.1 million payment and an apology from the school.