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Witnesses: FAMU hazing suspect led ritual aboard bus that led to drum major's beating death

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ORLANDO, Florida — The Florida A&M band member being tried on hazing charges in the death of a drum major was the ring leader and decided who could participate in the initiation ritual, two former band members said Wednesday.

Former band member Lizette Sanchez testified that Dante Martin decided who was allowed to participate in the hazing ritual known as "crossing Bus C." She said she initially decided she wasn't going to take part her sophomore year in 2011, but changed her mind in an effort to end shunning from older band members who called her a "bad upperclassman" for not having done it.

"I felt like I was breaking a tradition," Sanchez said.

She completed the ritual shortly before Robert Champion of Decatur, Georgia, went through it following a football game in November 2011. Champion died from injuries sustained during the ritual, which involved getting kicked, punched and hit with band instruments. Martin is charged with manslaughter and hazing in the incident.

In a brief appearance on the witness stand late Wednesday, former FAMU band director Julian White, who retired in the months after Champion's death, testified that all band members had to sign anti-hazing pledges.

"I did a number of events and activities to curtail hazing," he said.

State attorney Jeff Ashton told Judge Renee Roche that he plans to rest his case sometime Thursday after calling a final witness — the medical examiner who performed Champion's autopsy. It will be the prosecution's eighth witness.

Earlier Wednesday, former head drum major Jonathan Boyce described seeing Champion have trouble breathing and collapse in the moments after he had completed the ritual.

Boyce testified that though he had gone through it in 2007, as head drum major in 2011 he had previously discouraged both Champion and Keon Hollis from taking part out of fear of them getting injured.

But Boyce said it was Martin —through a text message to him — who offered Champion and Hollis "their last chance" to participate in it with the 2011 band marching season ending that night.

It wasn't until later, Boyce said, that he found out via a phone call that Champion and Hollis had taken Martin up on his offer.

"I told the three ladies I was with 'Oh my God, I have to go down there and save them,'" Boyce said.

Boyce testified he boarded the bus and helped push Champion through the Bus C gauntlet, getting hit several times in the process. Former drum major Shawn Turner testified similarly later.

Once Champion reached the back and had completed the ritual, Boyce said he originally thought he was just out of breath as they stepped off the bus.

Boyce said it wasn't until he and other band members were walking back to their hotel rooms that, "I realized Robert wasn't with us."

He returned to see Champion collapse.

Martin's defense attorney, Dino Michaels, pointed out that both Boyce and Turner were initially charged with manslaughter and hazing in Champion's death, but received probation and community service in plea bargains with prosecutors.

And in what seemed to be an effort by Michaels to further the defense's opening statement theory that some band members viewed the Bus C crossings as athletic competitions, at one point he asked Boyce whether he previously thought that the ritual was fun. Boyce responded, "Yes."

But when asked by Ashton why Boyce initially didn't tell police that Champion had been "crossing Bus C" before he collapsed, Boyce said it was because he knew it was wrong.

"I believe what happened was a crime," Boyce said.

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