Former FAMU drum major Rikki Wills, who insists that he tried to shield his college roommate Robert Champion from a brutal hazing in Orlando in 2011, pleaded no contest today to felony hazing resulting in death.
Wills, 25, will not be sentenced until next month. But he will not face a jail sentence, said Assistant State Attorney Nicole Pegues.
Wills, who was set to stand trial Monday, accepted a plea offer from prosecutors who hope to use his testimony to build a stronger case against the 11 remaining defendants in the hazing scandal that led to the suspension of the iconic Florida A&M University band.
Champion, 26, one of six student leaders of the band, was beaten to death Nov. 19, 2011, on a charter bus parked at the Rosen Plaza hotel in Orlando, where the ensemble was staying for the annual Florida Classic football game.
Today, prosecutors dropped the manslaughter charge that Wills had faced. That charge carried a potential prison sentence of up to 15 years.
Wills, who appeared in court dressed in a suit and red tie, also pleaded no contest today to misdemeanor hazing in a related hazing case.
Wills will be sentenced on June 7. Pegues said he will receive a sentence similar to the ones given to two other former FAMU band members who pleaded no contest to felony hazing in the Champion case.
Expelled band members Ryan Dean and Brian Jones received probation and community-service sentences from Circuit Judge Marc Lubet last year.
Wills is the fourth ex-member of the Marching 100 to shoulder a share of the blame in Champion's death.
Wills has said he was on the bus to help Champion get through the beating in a hazing ritual known as "Crossing Bus C." He claims two of his fingers were broken by strikes intended for Champion, who died from shock brought on by deep-tissue bleeding that an Orange County medical examiner attributed to the hazing.
Because of his participation, Wills was expelled from FAMU three classes shy of earning a degree in criminal justice. He has faulted FAMU leaders and band staff for failing to stop hazing, which he termed a "bad tradition."
A third defendant, Caleb "C.J." Jackson, who was expected to testify against Wills, pleaded no contest to hazing and manslaughter last month, but a judge deferred sentencing.
Jackson, who has spent the past 12 months in the Leon County Jail on a probation violation, could draw a prison sentence.
Since Champion's death, the band has been suspended indefinitely; longtime band director Dr. Julian White retired in May after months of fighting for his job; and FAMU President Dr. James Ammons resigned last summer.
On the night Champion died, according to an investigative summary prepared by Orange County sheriff's deputies, Wills explained to White that Champion was injured in a hazing ritual. Wills later declined to be interviewed by detectives.
Sentinel staff writer Denise-Marie Ordway contributed to this report. Shudak@orlandosentinel.com or 407-650-6361Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times