ORLANDO, Fla. — A former Florida A&M band member on Friday became the first person to be sentenced to jail time for his role in the hazing death of a drum major.
Jessie Baskin was sentenced to 51 weeks in the county jail, five years of probation and 300 hours of community service for participating in the beating death of 26-year-old Robert Champion in November 2011.
In a hearing that lasted nearly three hours, Baskin’s attorney called several character witnesses from the 22-year-old’s family, including his mother and father. He also submitted a brief that contained letters pleading for leniency.
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Baskin was emotional throughout, several times wiping away tears, and other times trembling in his seat.
”I’ve sentenced a hundred people to life in prison. This is one of the hardest sentences that I’ve ever had to deal with,” Judge Marc Lubet said. ”No matter what I do, I can’t bring Robert Champion back.”
Baskin of Miami had faced nine years in prison after pleading no contest to manslaughter in November.
Champion – originally from Decatur, Ga. – died during a hazing ritual aboard a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel. Champion collapsed after prosecutors say band members beat him with fists and instruments.
Lubet said he was torn about how harsh of a sentence to give, but thought Baskin was remorseful about what happened. Lubet added that he hoped a year in jail will get the word out that ”hazing will not be tolerated.”
Fifteen former band members were charged with manslaughter and hazing in Champion’s death. Seven have been sentenced to combinations of probation and community service. One other defendant – 25-year-old Caleb Jackson – has pleaded no contest to manslaughter and is awaiting sentencing.
Champion’s parents – Robert Sr. and Pam Champion – also testified Friday, as they had at previous sentencing hearings. Both expressed their ongoing grief, with Pam Champion encouraging Baskin to ”make positive choices going forward”
”You did wrong … you must pay the consequences for what you did,” she said.
Before Lubet imposed his sentence, Baskin himself offered a statement, at one point turning toward Champion’s parents and giving a tearful apology.
”I apologize that this happened. I apologize for how this has affected you,” he said through a wailing voice. ”I’m not over it. It has affected me too. Robert was a good man and we know that …. We did not intend for this to happen.”
Baskin’s attorney, Christopher Smith, submitted a 19-page memorandum to the court in which he gave three reasons that he thought Lubet should deviate from the nine years proposed by the state’s sentencing score sheet.
Smith argued that Robert Champion was a willing participant in his hazing, that the offense was committed in ”an unsophisticated manner,” and that Baskin was too young to appreciate the consequences.
State attorney Jeff Ashton argued that only a lengthy prison term would stop future hazing incidents.
”We’ve done all we can do. We charged them with manslaughter because that is what they did,” he said. ”The rest is up to you.”
Champion’s death led to the departure of the band’s longtime director, the abrupt resignation of the university’s president and the suspension of the famed marching band that didn’t return to performing until this past fall. The school also has made changes in an effort to end a culture of hazing.
Pam Champion said though she believes Baskin’s sentence was too light, it won’t deter her family and a foundation started in her son’s name from trying to stop hazing nationwide.
”Clearly the sentence doesn’t fit what was done, including another opportunity to send a strong message,” she said. ”We have to talk to everyone, because what happened at that school was allowed to happen…But the message of the foundation is to say `No more.”’