Two former Florida A&M University fraternity brothers on Tuesday pleaded no contest to hazing a pledge and will avoid a third trial in the case.
Two years ago, a jury convicted Michael Morton and Jason Harris of beating the Kappa Alpha Psi pledge in the first test of the state’s felony hazing statute. But an appellate court in August reversed their convictions.
Circuit Judge Mark Walker sentenced Morton and Harris to time served – 614 days – and withheld adjudication as part of a plea deal with prosecutors. That means their records will be cleared of the felony convictions because the sentences do not include probation.
Morton, originally from Fort Lauderdale, and Harris, from Jacksonville, previously had been sentenced to two years in prison and three years on probation.
Three other fraternity brothers pleaded no contest in 2007 to misdemeanor charges and were placed on probation.
“This case has faced many challenges, including jury tampering and extensive media attention,” said defense lawyer Don Pumphrey Jr. “This resolution is best for everyone.”
The fraternity members struck the victim, Marcus Jones of Decatur, Ga., on the bottom with wooden canes and in the head with bare fists and boxing gloves during unauthorized initiation rites in 2006. A doctor operated on his buttocks to help heal a large bruise and he also had a broken ear drum.
Jones agreed with the plea deal, said Dawn Whitehurst, a lawyer representing him in a lawsuit against the fraternity and the five defendants.
Morton, who is married and has a 19-month-old daughter, said he was relieved and plans to speak to fraternities and sororities about the consequences of hazing.
“Look at me,” said Morton said. “I was Student Senate president and a straight-A student, and I wound up in prison for two years for a stupid tradition.”
Even if they were retried, the men couldn’t have been sentenced to more prison time and keeping the convictions off their records will lift an obstacle to future employment in certain fields, Whitehurst said.
“Marcus has never wanted to destroy these young men,” she said.
The five defendants were tried together. The first jury was unable to reach a verdict for any of them. The second could agree only on verdicts for Morton and Harris. Prosecutors then let the other three plead no contest to the lesser charges.
Both juries were perplexed by the law, which makes it a felony to commit hazing that results in “serious bodily injury” but offers no definition of that term.
The Florida Legislature passed the 2005 law in response to the death of Chad Meredith, a University of Miami freshman who drowned in 2001 while trying to swim across a lake with members of a fraternity he wanted to join.