ORLANDO — The last three defendants in the death of a Florida A&M drum major were convicted of manslaughter and hazing Friday, ending a 3-year-old case that shined a light on ritualized hazing within the school's famed marching band.
The six-member jury deliberated for 21/2 hours before reaching a verdict.
Benjamin McNamee, 24; Darryl Cearnel, 28; and Aaron Golson, 22, were the final three defendants charged in Robert Champion's death in 2011. Defense attorneys said they will likely appeal.
"It's a tough pill to swallow, all in all, for some really good kids who had a bright future," said Craig Brown, Golson's defense attorney. "There are no winners or losers. There are only losers in this case, for the Champion family, for our clients."
The defendants showed no reaction after the verdict was read in the Orlando courtroom. Champion's parents bowed their heads slightly. Later, as McNamee was being handcuffed in the courtroom, he mouthed "I love you" to family members.
Sentencing was set for late June when they each could face up to 15 years in prison for the manslaughter count and five years imprisonment for the hazing count.
Champion's parents said after the verdict that they hope the sentence sends a strong message about the consequence of hazing.
"We have to get that message out," said his mother, Pam Champion.
A total of 15 defendants were charged originally.
The beating death of the 26-year-old Champion aboard a band bus after a football game exposed a culture of hazing within the school's band.
Champion ran through a gantlet of fellow band members who punched, kicked and struck him with instruments. He collapsed and died a short time later.
"There's no real joy in any of this for anyone," said State Attorney Jeff Ashton after the verdict. "The only great thing that hopefully will come of this is that young people will take a lesson from this and understand that the hazing laws are serious and they have serious consequences in everybody's life. … Hazing has got to stop."
Jurors began deliberating Friday afternoon, on the fifth day of the trial, following closing arguments from a prosecutor and a team of defense attorneys.
Ashton argued that hazing was ingrained in the school's famed band.
"Tradition: As a result of that, Robert Champion was beaten to death by his friends. They didn't beat him because they hated him. It was a tradition," Ashton said.
Known as "Crossing Bus C," the ritual required band members to try to make it to the back of the bus with as many as three dozen fellow members doing everything to stop them. Succeeding through "the crossing" was a way to earn the respect and acceptance of fellow band members. Other parts of the ritual included "the hot seat," when band members stayed in bus seats with heads between their legs as other band members beat them, as well as "prepping," when a shirtless band member was slapped on the back and chest.
Defense attorneys challenged the testimony of other band members who were on the bus, contending that prosecutors never proved any individual was responsible for Champion's death. They also said there was no conspiracy, as prosecutors claimed.
Cearnel's attorney, Anthony Britt, told jurors that some witnesses were lying to deflect their involvement in the hazing.
"Show me the evidence!" Britt said. "The state has not proven their case."
Closing arguments were delayed after Ashton wanted to find out if jurors were influenced by the sight of two defendants praying outside the courtroom.
Almost all of the six jurors and two alternates said they saw Golson and McNamee praying, but they said it wouldn't influence them during deliberations.
The jurors had initially told the judge they were having trouble with the definition of criminal conspiracy.
About an hour after retiring to the deliberation room, they sent a note to the judge asking for help.
"We are struggling with the conspiracy portion of this verdict," the jury foreman told Judge Renee Roche when they were brought back into the courtroom.
Roche sent them back to the jury room, asking them to clarify what information they were seeking.
The next time they emerged, they had a verdict.