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Teacher to stand trial in punching death at Strip casino

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Steve Marcus

Benjamin Gerard Hawkins listens to testimony during a preliminary hearing in District Court Tuesday Feb. 28, 2012. Hawkins, a Gainesville, Fla., teacher who was on vacation, is facing charges of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of another tourist after an altercation at O’Sheas in July.

Updated Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2012 | 2:49 p.m.

Teacher Faces Manslaughter Charges

Benjamin Gerard Hawkins, center, confers with attorneys James Kelly, left, and Jack Buchanan during a preliminary hearing in District Court Tuesday Feb. 28, 2012. Hawkins, a Gainesville, Fla., teacher who was on vacation, is facing charges of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the death of another tourist after an altercation at O'Sheas in July. Launch slideshow »

Benjamin Hawkins says it was self defense. But he will stand trial for involuntary manslaughter for punching a man who then fell, hit his head and died last summer in a Las Vegas Strip casino.

Following a preliminary hearing today in Las Vegas Justice Court, Judge William Jansen said there was enough evidence to bind Benjamin Hawkins, 38, over to District Court in the death of John Massie.

Hawkins is a former teacher who is now employed in an administrative position at a school district in Gainsville, Fla. He had been out of custody on $25,000 bail but the judge has now released him on his own recognizance.

Hawkins' tentative arraignment date was set for April 23 in Clark County District Court.

Hawkins had an altercation with Massie, a 46-year-old Utah man, at 12:40 a.m. July 6 on the casino floor at O'Sheas, authorities said.

Hawkins reportedly said he was defending himself and his family from Massie, who he said bumped into him in a restroom, insulted him racially and continued to be aggressive toward him.

Hawkins told police that he feared for himself and his family as he came out of the restroom and Massie and he had words, then Massie started coming up behind him.

A video played during the preliminary hearing showed Hawkins spinning around and punching Massie in the left side of his face. Massie went down and didn't get up.

Massie was taken to Desert Springs Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 1:08 a.m. July 6.

The coroner said the cause of death was not the punch, but an injury to Massey's brain when the back of his head hit the floor.

There are two versions of what Hawkins told authorities after the incident.

According to Oscar Velasquez, a security guard who was on the scene first, Hawkins told him that Massie had insulted him with the "N" word inside the bathroom and that Massie followed him outside and continued saying things to him, so Hawkins turned around and punched him.

However, Jeff Rosgen, a Metro homicide detective, said when he interviewed Hawkins, Hawkins said that Massie called him a black man but didn’t use the "N" word.

Rosgen said that Hawkins told him that Massie had bumped or touched him, then put his hands up in the air and made a comment about “a black man in a yellow shirt” that Hawkins considered to be racial and aggressive.

During Rosgen’s testimony, a video of the punching incident was shown on the prosecutor’s computer screen.

The judge, the attorneys, the defendant and members of the media, gathered around the prosecutor’s desk to watch the video. It showed Massie coming out of the restroom, stopping and putting his hands in his pockets.

Then it showed Hawkins coming out and walking past Massie, the two having words, then Hawkins taking a few steps over to his friend and his wife, who were at a blackjack table about five feet away.

Massie then took three steps, coming up behind Hawkins when Hawkins spun around and punched him.

Hawkin's attorney, Jack Buchanan, told the judge there was no battery because the video showed Hawkins was defending himself from what he saw as aggressive behavior by an intoxicated man.

However, Chief Deputy District Attorney Maria Lavell told the judge that the state had shown there was evidence of a punch being thrown and the coroner saying the death was a result of the effects of the punch.

After the judge ruled the case should go to District Court, Buchanan told reporters that Hawkins will continue to claim self defense, and his case will be ultimately decided by a jury.

Buchanan said he intended to call numerous witnesses when the case goes to trial.

Prosecutors had originally charged Hawkins with open murder, but earlier this month, at the request of defense attorneys, they agreed to reduce the charges to involuntary manslaughter. Involuntary manslaughter is a category D felony, which carries a minimum term of not less than 1 year and a maximum term of not more than 4 years, according to state statute.

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