ORLANDO, Fla. - A third band member charged with the hazing death of a Florida A&M drum major pleaded no contest Tuesday and agreed to testify against the remaining 11 defendants.
Caleb Jackson, 24, pleaded no contest to manslaughter and felony hazing. By pleading no contest, Jackson does not admit guilt but acknowledges prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him.
Jackson will be sentenced in the fall after giving testimony to prosecutors about what happened to drum major Robert Champion as he walked down a gauntlet of other band members who beat him with fists and mallets on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel in November 2011.
Champion collapsed and later died.
Circuit Judge Marc Lubet warned Jackson that he could face a maximum of 35 years in prison if he changed his mind and didn't cooperate.
"If you fully cooperate and continue to work with the state ... you may very well come out pretty good," Lubet said. "If you don't, you may very well come out really bad."
Jackson answered only "yes, sir" and "no, sir" to a series of questions from the judge about whether he was entering the plea without coercion and whether he was aware he will be able to appeal any sentence.
Attorney Chuck Hobbs had said last week that Jackson would plead guilty. But Hobbs said he instead decided that it would be in Jackson's best interest to plead no contest.
Jackson is the third of 14 FAMU band members to plead. The first two got probation but were not charged with manslaughter.
"What he will be able to provide is that he obviously was there, he had a very good view of what happened that night, and of who did what," Hobbs said.
Hobbs said Jackson saw it all and is ready to name names and who held what objects.
"What Robert Champion and others went through on the bus was a gauntlet. They went through the bus aisle, people on both sides, hitting them with fists, mallets, cymbals," said Hobbs. "It was almost a free for all on the bus."
No prosecutors showed up for Tuesday's hearing.
WFTV legal analyst Bill Sheaffer said Jackson's cooperation will likely result in fewer trials in the case.
"This plea is the most significant so far. This is going to cause the others to evaluate their cases and probably enter pleas," Sheaffer said.
Jackson had been held in the Leon County Jail on a violation of probation since his arrest last May. He will get credit for the time he already has served in jail, Hobbs said.
Jackson's mother hid her face as she left court. The family did not want to speak to Channel 9 about Tuesday's plea.