ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Three years ago, the drum major in Florida A and M's marching band was killed. And today, in a courtroom in Orlando, the trial began for another member of the band who was accused of manslaughter in that case. Prosecutors say Dante Martin was the organizer of what they called a dark tradition, in which Robert Champion was beaten to death. One question is whether the death occurred during hazing. Defense lawyers argue the incident was part of what they call a competition and should not be considered hazing. NPR's Greg Allen is following the trial, and he spoke with us from outside the courtroom in Orlando.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: What happened on that day is that Robert Champion died as part of a tradition that's long been a part of the marching band at Florida A and M called crossing Bus C. That's the bus the percussion section usually uses. And the band member on trial, Dante Martin, was the president of Bus C. That's sort of a leadership position. So on that day in November of 2011, Robert Champion willingly decided to cross over Bus C. He came forward and said he wanted to do it. Martin's lawyer, Dino Michaels, told the jury this is a tradition that started long before that day. And what happens is that basically you have to cross through a gauntlet of people. You go from the front to the back, and you do it just to try to get some recognition and respect.
SIEGEL: For respect - I mean, is that why band members would go through this? The idea that they would be accepted more?
ALLEN: It's kind of hard to understand. But that's what we get from the witnesses and the lawyers, both for the defense and the prosecution. They say that most band members did not go through this. Only a minority of the band had done this crossing over of the bus tradition that they do. And they say they do it to get recognition and respect. Robert Champion was an accomplished musician. He'd been a clarinetist who recently moved to drum major. He'd been in the band for several years. And prosecutor Jeff Ashton described the ordeal that Champion went through, where he was hit by fists, straps, even drum mallets. And he eventually did get to the back of the bus.
SIEGEL: He made it to the back of the bus, but then he collapsed.
ALLEN: Right. And, you know, a few minutes later, he got outside, and he'd lost consciousness. Paramedics were unable to revive him. The autopsy report shows that he died of internal bleeding.
SIEGEL: So by all accounts, this is something that lots of band members who were in this bus took part in. There were 15 band members originally charged for their roles in Champion's death. Why is this just one band member, Dante Martin, who's standing trial?
ALLEN: Well, most of the others have had their cases resolved already. Several were determined to have had minor roles, and they received probation and community service. Another one pleaded guilty, and he received a year in jail. There are three other band members who are still facing trial. But in his role as president of Bus C, Dante Martin may be the guy who's on the hot seat here and who's facing the toughest facts. So how this case comes out may have a bearing on what happens with the remaining three members.
SIEGEL: Where do things now stand for Florida A and M University. After Champion's death three years ago, I believe the - well, the band was suspended for a while, wasn't it?
ALLEN: That's right.
SIEGEL: Have things actually changed there?
ALLEN: Yeah, the band, as you say, was suspended, stopped performing. They forced out the longtime director. After at least a year, they brought - the band came back. They started performing again last year, but as a much smaller unit. As for the university, there's still a lawsuit outstanding from Robert Champion's parents. But the death led to the ouster of the university's former president. They have a new leader in charge there. So there's been some big changes there with the band and the university.
SIEGEL: OK, thank you, Greg.
ALLEN: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Greg Allen in Orlando.
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