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Band member to plead guilty in drum major’s death

ORLANDO, Fla. - Remorse drove Caleb Jackson to seek a plea deal with prosecutors in the hazing death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion, his lawyer, Chuck Hobbs, told the Orlando Sentinel on Friday.

Jackson, 24, who is in the Leon County Jail, regarded Champion as “a brother,” Hobbs said.

The agreement, reached in principal during a pretrial conference Friday in Orlando, requires Jackson to provide prosecutors with a detailed statement and testify truthfully in the cases of his 11 co-defendants, Hobbs said.

“Caleb felt as if Robert was a brother and, as he has sat in the Leon County Jail, he’s had a lot of time to reflect on what happened,” Hobbs said. “If he could turn back the hands of time, he has told me many times, he would have never gone back down to the bus.”

Champion, 26, one of the prized band’s six drum majors, was beaten to death Nov. 19, 2011, on a parked charter bus during a ritual known as “Crossing Bus C” in which he absorbed an estimated 300 blows from band mates.

The incident occurred at the Rosen Plaza hotel in Orlando after the Florida Classic, the annual rivalry football game at the Citrus Bowl between FAMU and Bethune-Cookman University. The weekend event includes a “Battle of the Bands” competition.

A dozen ex-band members, including Jackson, are charged with felony hazing and manslaughter in Champion’s death. Prosecutors, without explanation, beefed up the charges this week, notifying defense lawyers by email.

The manslaughter charge carries a possible 15-year prison sentence.

Most of the band members accused in the hazing had been charged with felony hazing, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Two defendants, Ryan Dean and Brian Jones, pleaded no contest and were given probationary, community-service sentences by Circuit Judge Marc Lubet, who is presiding over the cases.

Known to band mates as “CJ,” Jackson, a percussionist, was among dozens of FAMU band members who were not enrolled in school, but traveled and performed with the high-energy, high-stepping iconic college band. He had been enrolled at Tallahassee Community College in 2011, but lost his financial aid and had to withdraw from classes.

According to an 89-page investigative summary of Champion’s death, Orange County sheriff’s detectives spoke with several band members who said they saw “CJ” pulling on Champion or jumping on the drum major.

Drum major Shawn Turner said he fought with Jackson, who was holding Champion back.

Hobbs said Jackson was not one of the band members who swung a drum mallet or drumsticks at Champion as the drum major tried to plow through a gauntlet of fists, knees and legs toward the back of the bus.

Because Jackson had a prior battery conviction, he faces “the specter of more prison time than anyone else” charged in the case, Hobbs said. “But he also hurts for the Champion family,” Hobbs said. “If he can help them get closure and get some answers, he wants to help in any way he can.”

Asked if the prosecutor’s decision to add a manslaughter charge prompted Jackson’s plea, Hobbs said his client had hoped for months for an opportunity to resolve the case. He said Jackson hopes his cooperation will be taken in consideration during his sentencing.

Hobbs said prosecutors made no promises on sentencing.

After his arrest in the hazing case last year, Jackson was denied bail because he was on probation for his role in assaulting a student at Tallahassee Community College in 2009. He and another student teamed up to punch and kick a student who got angry because the pair cut in line at Enrollment Services, knocking the victim’s teeth loose, according to a police report.

He pleaded no contest to felony battery with great bodily harm, a third-degree felony. Jackson was ordered to serve 36 months’ probation, complete an anger-management class and pay restitution to the victim. He has been held in jail on the probation violation, which stems from his arrest in the hazing incident.

Jackson could not attend Friday’s pretrial conference because Leon County Jail officials would not transport him to Orange County. Hobbs said the plea will be finalized next month and Jackson’s presence will be required.

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In the wake of the hazing scandal, the band’s longtime director Dr. Julian White and FAMU President James Ammons both retired abruptly and the high-profile Marching 100, which has performed at Super Bowls, the Grammy Awards and presidential inaugurations, was suspended indefinitely.

The drum major’s parents, Robert and Pamela Champion, rejected a $300,000 offer last year from the university to settle a wrongful-death claim which accuses FAMU of allowing a dangerous culture of hazing to thrive within the band.

The family and the university have been waiting since November for Circuit Judge Walter Komanski to rule on FAMU’s motion to throw out the lawsuit. The university contends Champion voluntarily participated in the hazing ritual, though it violated FAMU and band policies.

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