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May 26, 2015

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Trial opens for teacher in fatal punch at O’Sheas

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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.

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Chief Deputy District Attorney Maria Lavell asks a question during a preliminary hearing in District Court Tuesday Feb. 28, 2012. Benjamin Gerard 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.

A confrontation that began in an O’Sheas bathroom spilled onto the casino floor, leading to one punch and a man dead, witnesses recalled Tuesday, the first day of Benjamin Hawkins’ trial for involuntary manslaughter.

The man dead was 46-year-old John Massie, a Utah resident visiting Las Vegas on July 6, 2011. Hawkins, also a tourist visiting from Florida, was the man who threw the punch.

The Clark County coroner later determined Massie died from a brain injury sustained when his head hit the floor, not from the punch. Hawkins was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Before prosecutors called six witnesses to testify, Hawkins’ defense attorney, Jack Buchanan, asked the jurors to consider what prompted the defendant to throw the punch.

“It’s a why,” Buchanan told the jurors. “Why was it done?”

The defense’s assertion is this: Massie flung a racial insult at Hawkins in the bathroom and, after the two exchanged words, continued the confrontation on the casino floor, leading to the defendant feeling threatened and acting in self-defense.

Prosecutor Maria Lavell, a chief deputy district attorney for Clark County, painted a different picture for the jurors during her opening remarks: Both men did converse outside the bathroom, but their arms were down when Hawkins suddenly turned and punched Massie, causing him to “fall like a tree.”

The defense and prosecution’s opening remarks set the stage for a jury trial that likely will last several days. The case is being heard before Clark County District Court Judge Valerie Adair.

The first witness called by the prosecution was Massie’s 23-year-old daughter, Crystal, who described her father as a former Air Force member who, at the time, worked as a civilian at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. She testified that she never knew her father to be racist.

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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.

The next two witnesses — men who saw and overheard the pair’s initial exchange in an O’Sheas restroom — testified they heard Massie comment about how Hawkins, a black man, was wearing a yellow shirt.

The men said Massie appeared “jovial” or “happy-go-lucky,” albeit slightly intoxicated, while inside the restroom and that his comment seemed to upset Hawkins.

August Klotz, one of the witnesses inside the restroom, said Massie had appeared to “pat” Hawkins’ shoulder and arm. Hawkins then told Massie to get his hands off him, Klotz testified.

Hawkins reiterated the request a few seconds later, telling Massie he would knock him out if he didn’t remove his hands, Klotz told the courtroom.

Massie replied in a way that suggested he doubted that would happen, then left the restroom, Klotz testified.

Surveillance video played in the courtroom showed Massie exiting the restroom first, followed by Hawkins several seconds later. By then, the pair were in front of a Burger King inside the casino.

The video showed Hawkins starting to walk past Massie when the two have words again. Hawkins then appears to start walking away, but after he makes several steps, Massie begins moving behind him. That’s when Hawkins spins around and punches him.

Dana D’Aigle, a tourist visiting from Minnesota that day, testified she saw the two men speaking in “elevated voices” as she walked past them toward a garbage can. When she turned around, she observed Hawkins punch Massie.

“It happened really quickly,” she said.

Kathryn Schaff, a tourist visiting Las Vegas with D’Aigle and other friends, was standing across the way from D’Aigle, viewing the incident from the other side.

Schaff testified that, from her vantage point that day, it appeared Massie was standing behind Hawkins with his hands at his side just before Hawkins turned and punched him.

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Judge William Jansen listens as security officer Oscar Velasquez testifies during a preliminary hearing in District Court Tuesday Feb. 28, 2012. Benjamin Gerard 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.

After viewing the surveillance footage, Schaff acknowledged that Massie appeared to move behind Hawkins. Even so, Schaff testified that she didn’t perceive Massie doing anything “aggressive” in the seconds before the punch.

The punch caused Massie to land flat on his back. He was later pronounced dead at Desert Springs Hospital.

Oscar Velasquez, a security guard working at O’Sheas that night, testified that he responded to the scene within seconds and spoke with Hawkins, whom he described as calm and matter-of-fact.

Hawkins said Massie had been racially insulting and following him, Velasquez testified.

Hawkins, who worked as a teacher in Gainesville, Fla., has been out of custody on his own recognizance. He appeared in court Tuesday wearing a gray suit and glasses, as his family watched the proceedings from the public seating.

Hawkins is expected to testify later this week.

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