ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Florida prosecutors will charge former Florida A&M University band members with manslaughter in the 2011 hazing death of drum major Robert Champion in a decision that came as a surprise to defense lawyers, one defendant's attorney said on Monday.
Twelve former band members originally faced felony charges in the brutal hazing case, but two of the defendants settled their cases by pleading no contest last year.
All of the remaining defendants, who still face felony hazing charges, will now be hit additionally with the more serious charge of manslaughter, said lawyer Craig Wellington.
"We were certainly not expecting that firework," Wellington said of the decision, adding that defense lawyers were alerted via email to the manslaughter charges minutes before stepping into an Orlando courtroom for the start of a status hearing in the case.
Champion, 26, died in a hazing ritual during a band trip to Orlando on November 19, 2011. His death was ruled a homicide as a result of a hemorrhagic shock caused by blunt force trauma during the hazing on a chartered bus, according to the medical examiner's report.
Wellington said prosecutors were adding two new defendants to the case and would charge them with manslaughter too.
A clerk for the court said the charges had not yet been filed and a spokesman for State Attorney Jeff Ashton told Reuters the office would not comment.
Wellington said manslaughter is a second degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Felony hazing is a third degree felony, which carries a potential five years in prison.
"I think it's a travesty," Wellington told Reuters. "We don't think these kids should have to endure a manslaughter charge ... It was tragic but it was a doggone accident," he said.
Champion died after he collapsed due to what prosecutors have described as a savage ritualistic beating aboard a charter bus that drove the band from Tallahassee.
"We applaud the courageous leadership of Mr. Ashton," said Christopher Chestnut, who is suing FAMU and the school charter bus company on behalf of Champion's parents.
"We had been pleading with the prosecution from day one to appropriately charge this case," he said.
(Reporting by Barbara Liston; Editing by Daniel Trotta, Cynthia Johnston and Andrew Hay)