(MCT) — ORLANDO, Fla. — An Orange County judge Monday ordered two years of probation and 200 hours of community service for Brian Jones, the first of a dozen former members of Florida A&M’s famous marching band to be sentenced in the fatal hazing of drum major Robert Champion.
Jones, 23, a percussionist who had pleaded no contest to a felony-hazing charge, also will have to complete six months of community control, a type of probation that might require him to wear an ankle monitor.
Circuit Judge Marc Lubet could have sentenced Jones to five years in prison. But Lubet told Jones that his life was worth saving, and that a felony record would destroy him.
Lubet earlier had labeled Jones’ involvement in the hazing as “rather minimal.” As he announced the sentence, the judge quoted Abraham Lincoln, saying, “Mercy bears richer fruit than strict justice.”
Before the sentencing, the victim’s mother, Pamela Champion, who carried a framed photograph of her son to the podium, told the court that Jones’ role was not minimal. She called the hazing an act of murder.
“You will always know your part in what you’ve done,” she said, speaking directly to Jones. “It will haunt you.”
Champion’s parents, who traveled from Georgia for the proceeding, reacted to the sentencing later Monday in a news conference. Pamela Champion said she was disappointed, but gave Jones credit for having the courage to say he was wrong. Others who were on the bus where her son was hazed, she said, should also accept responsibility.
“They know exactly who they are and every one of them were wrong,” she said.
They had expressed disappointment in the spring when prosecutors decided to seek third-degree felony hazing charges instead of murder or manslaughter for the band members who played a role in their son’s death.
Champion, 26, died Nov. 19 after being beaten aboard a band bus parked outside the Rosen Plaza hotel. The Marching 100 had traveled to Orlando from Tallahassee to perform at the annual Florida Classic football game, a major fundraiser for FAMU and its longtime rival, Bethune-Cookman University of Daytona Beach.
During the court proceeding Monday, Jones apologized to the Champions. But he did not offer any specifics about what happened that night, or his role.
“Hazing is a completely inexcusable thing,” he said. “It went further than anybody would ever have imagined or wanted or thought it would go.”
After the sentencing, Jones’ attorney, Alisia Adamson, said Jones had hoped to avoid jail time and a conviction with his no-contest plea. “We just wanted to resolve the situation and get it behind him,” Adamson said.
He may have to testify against his fellow bandmates. The judge forbade him to have contact with the others.
Jones had told investigators that he was not on the bus when Champion boarded it. But in a statement to sheriff’s detectives, fellow band member Benjamin McNamee, who also is charged in Champion’s death, claimed he saw Jones on the bus holding Champion in a bear hug.
Champion was trying to make his way from the front of the bus to the back as band members assaulted him with punches, kicks and objects ranging from drumsticks to straps and an orange traffic cone. The hazing ritual is known as “crossing Bus C.” His death led to the sudden retirement of the band director, the forced resignation of FAMU’s president, and the indefinite suspension of the band, which has performed at presidential inaugurations, Super Bowls and the Grammys.
Trials for the other 11 band members charged in Champion’s death are set for next year.
Two other former band members face a misdemeanor charge for hazing Lissette Sanchez and Keon Hollis, a drum major. Those alleged hazings, which resulted in lesser injuries, occurred on the same bus before Champion was beaten.
Prosecutors argued against probation, but admitted they had no evidence that Jones punched, kicked or stomped Champion. “The reason why this case is so sad,” said assistant state attorney Nicole Pegues, “is because everybody is talking about everybody’s character. The true test of character is whether you do the right thing when it’s extremely hard to do it. Nobody who was on that bus with Robert Champion did that.”