The prosecutor in the Florida A & M University (“FAMU”) hazing case gets a new face with the lead prosecutor who tried the Casey Anthony case. State’s Attorney Jeff Ashton who tried unsuccessfully to convict Casey Anthony of first degree murder in a death penalty case became the State’s Attorney in January after an election in November. And just like in the Casey Anthony case, the prosecutor has now overcharged with adding manslaughter in the FAMU case. The FAMU Band case stems from the hazing death of Robert Chestnut, a drum major, age 26 who died in November, 2011, during a hazing incident while on a bus following a FAMU game played with Bethune- Cookman. Chestnut sustained bodily injuries to his upper body and died of internal injuries. His death was ruled a homicide.
Ten players were originally charged with third degree felony hazing. Twelve band players have now been charged with second degree manslaughter. No one knows who inflicted the blows which killed Chestnut. Two persons were added to the charges but have not been arrested. Two band members plead guilty to felony hazing and are not a part of the new charges.
The difference in amending the charge to second degree manslaughter could make it harder to obtain a conviction. Prosecutors originally filed felony hazing charges that required that they prove only that the defendants took part in a hazing that resulted in death. With the new charges, it will make it more difficult to obtain a conviction. No one knows who struck the fatal blows or blows that resulted in Chestnut’s death.
Juries often consider facts that are not relevant to the facts of the charges. Juries will look closer at the facts surrounding the death of Chestnut with the higher charge of manslaughter. First, Chestnut was allegedly agreeing to the hazing, a ritual of the band. While it has no bearing on the charges, defense attorneys will undoubtedly focus on the victim’s willing participation in the hazing. While manslaughter charges may be appropriate, obtaining a conviction is another story. And overcharging in a case that goes to trial often lessens the likelihood of a conviction. Had Casey Anthony been charged with second degree murder instead of first degree murder and potential death penalty, the prosecutor may possibly have obtained a conviction.
In a similar case, Conrad Murray was tried and convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the death of Michael Jackson for administering Propofol for sleeping. Michael Jackson had also agreed to the use of Propofol, a contention of the defense. Dr. Murray was a doctor who would know the consequences of using the drug to induce nightly sleep. And a manslaughter conviction for the death of the “King of Pop” is far different than the hazing case of the Florida A&M band member.
Under Florida statutes, the term hazing is defined as:
“ any action or situation that recklessly or intentionally endangers the mental or physical health or safety of a student for purposes including, but not limited to, initiation or admission into or affiliation with any organization operating under the sanction of a postsecondary institution. “Hazing” includes, but is not limited to, pressuring or coercing the student into violating state or federal law, any brutality of a physical nature, such as whipping, beating, branding” and other physical forms.
Where hazing results in serious bodily injury or death, it carries a maximum of up to 5 years in jail. Manslaughter carries up to 15 years in jail. Chestnut’s death was ruled a homicide. A jury may be reluctant to convict in this case on the manslaughter charge and subject the 10 now 12 defendants to facing up to 15 years in jail. The prosecutor could also use the manslaughter charge to bargain for a plea bargain for additional time beyond the 5 year maximum under the hazing statute. The trial is set for August, 2013 with a hundred witnesses listed.
Above Photo Courtesy of Don Juan Moore-AP.
Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor who appears often in the media addressing headline legal trial and issues on race and gender.