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October 19, 2014

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Man guilty of involuntary manslaughter in one-punch death

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Steve Marcus

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.

Updated Friday, Nov. 30, 2012 | 2:28 p.m.

Map of O'Sheas

O'Sheas

3555 Las Vegas Blvd South, Las Vegas

A jury today found Benjamin Hawkins guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a tourist who died after Hawkins punched him at a Las Vegas casino.

Hawkins, 39, bowed his head and his wife cried softly in the public seating area as the verdict was read Friday afternoon in Clark County District Court. Hawkins will be sentenced Feb. 14.

Jack Buchanan, Hawkins' defense attorney, said Hawkins intends to seek probation. The felony charge carries a maximum prison sentence of four years, but defendants can be given probation at the discretion of the court, Buchanan said.

"Obviously, we're incredibly disappointed with the verdict," Buchanan said, speaking on behalf of the Hawkins family.

Mary Vinup, the sister of the victim, John Massie, said the family will continue to pray for the Hawkins family, because the incident affected both families, especially the children.

"He was a good man," Vinup said of her brother. "He was not a racist man. He loved life."

The incident happened July 6, 2011, after Hawkins, and Massie, 46, a Utah resident visiting Las Vegas, exchanged words in the restroom at O’Sheas on the Strip.

According to a Metro Police arrest report, Massie made a comment about Hawkins being a black man wearing a yellow shirt. They had a verbal exchange and the confrontation continued after they exited the restroom, the report said.

The defense asserted Hawkins acted in self-defense when he threw a single punch that landed Massie flat on his back.

Gary Telgenoff, a forensic pathologist with the Clark County Coroner’s Office, testified earlier this week that Massie died from blunt-force trauma caused by his head hitting the floor, not the punch itself.

The prosecution, however, argued Hawkins was the aggressor and delivered what they called a “sucker punch” to Massie.

Two prosecution witnesses testified that Massie, who had a blood-alcohol level of 0.172 at the time, was in a “jovial” or “happy-go-lucky” mood when he encountered Hawkins in the restroom.

During closing arguments, defense attorney Jack Buchanan told the jurors to consider Hawkins’ testimony, during which he described telling Massie to leave him alone several times.

Hawkins also testified Thursday that in the seconds before the punch, Massie told him, “I’ve got something for your (expletive).”

“This is a man who was threatened,” Buchanan said. “He was threatened and pushed to the brink...It’s about fear.”

Prosecutors Maria Lavell and Jonathan Cooper argued that Hawkins’ anger over perceived racial insults led to the punch.

They said Hawkins, who also had consumed several alcoholic drinks that night, followed through on a threat he made to Massie in the restroom — that he would “knock him the (expletive) out.”

“You did not hear from John Massie,” Lavell told the jurors. “He left Las Vegas in a coffin because the defendant was pissed off.”

The trial opened Tuesday and included testimony from several eyewitnesses. The jury also viewed footage taken from a surveillance video inside O’Sheas, which shows the events that transpired outside the restroom, including the punch.

Hawkins has been out of custody on his own recognizance. Hawkins worked as a teacher and football coach in the Gainesville, Fla., area at the time of the incident.

Massie, a former Air Force member, worked as a civilian at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. He had three children.

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  1. This is a very difficult case. The crux is whether Hawkins felt fear of attack from Massie.
    Personally I don't know, so I would have to acquit.

  2. I'm inclined to give Hawkins the benefit of the doubt for a few reasons, not least of which are a) the judge at the time gave him ROR, and b) the prosecutor didn't see fit to go for a stronger charge.

    Given what facts we have, I could possibly go for negligent homicide at most if the evidence supported it, but I would have to actually have been at the trial and seen all the evidence before saying one way or another.

  3. Seen video repeatedly. Regardless of what the guy was saying, hands in pockets does not justify what he did, intentional or not - correct verdict. Now lets see what he gets.

  4. Only idiots who read the Sun would think this killer is innocent. By the comments, I guess you idiots are out there.

  5. Bob Coburn lacks empathy, sympathy, compassion, mercy, and true justice. Other than that he is a fine human being.

  6. If Mr. Hawkins was white and Mr. Massie was black, nobody would doubt his claim that he felt threatened. Most of the contemptuous readers who are posting disparaging comments about Mr. Hawkins have defended cops who have shot unarmed black suspects.

    @homer....When you call Mr. Hawkins a "gangsta thug" it makes you seem like a hateful bigot.

    This was a tragic accident-nothing more.

  7. The person who died was more than twice the legal limit for intoxication. Sounds like probation is in the future.

  8. Who keeps filling the glasses of these intoxicated idiots.

  9. It's against the law to hit someone unless they swing first, even if they're drunk and " run their mouth" This guy is a football coach, big and strong.There's a lot of MMA fighters in Vegas,if they get mad, can they knock you into next week too? He needs to serve time or lots of people may not want to visit Vegas.

  10. It seems like Hawkins was not cornered and could have escaped his situation. Of course Massie could have also been armed with a "tactical" knife or a small pistol which could have been concealed in his pocket. Was it prudent for Hawkins to strike first? I think not, even if he truly believed Massie was carrying a weapon.

    It seems probable that Hawkins intended to cause Massie pain and temporarily disable him in that order. He did not intend to kill him otherwise the assault would have continued after Massie was down. That as it may be, does not absolve Mr. Hawkins of any responsibility. In this life, if you make a mistake, you traditionally get punished for it. Since he has already been convicted, we should leave his punishment to the criminal and civil courts.

  11. @mikecool..."It's against the law to hit someone unless they swing first..."

    Actually that is not true. There is nothing at all in the NRS that supports that nonsense.

    This all comes down to whether or not is was reasonable for Hawkins to fear Massie. Is it reasonable for school teacher to fear a person who has already laid hands on him twice and continues to stalk and engage him? Does Massie's hands in his pocket elevate or eliminate that fear?

    Now @TomD doesn't think it matters here, but law enforcement established the precedent of what actions can establish fear. So, unless we demand school teachers to be less afraid than highly trained cops, it makes sense to see if there are any similar events where police killed.

    Have cops killed people with their hands in their pockets?

    Yes, they have. Metro officers have killed unarmed men with hands IN POCKETS, hands IN THE AIR, hands4 IN CUFFS and hands BOUNCING A BASKETBALL. And in each and everyone of those incidents the killing was considered justified because the officer said he was afraid. And these were all 'highly trained' law enforcement officers.

    Why do so many of you, like TomD, hold police in such low regard that you expect less from them than you do from anyone else?

  12. bghs1986:

    I think you should consider the fact that Metro Police Officers function in an atmosphere of expected danger. Any deaths that occur, do so during the conduct of the Officer's sworn duty. That Officer is trained and has experience in recognizing criminal activity. If one antagonizes or does not cooperate--however unintentional--he or she does so at their own peril, which should be expected. It is therefore unfair to compare an intoxicated School Teacher unable to control his emotions to someone professionally trained to handle petentially dangerious and violent confrontations.

    Epiloge: When you you drink in a public place in Las Vegas, you should consider the possibility of some kind of trouble including possible altercations ahead of time and should taylor your behahior accordingly. I'm sure that Mr. Hawkins and (definately) Mr. Massie did not intend their evening to end so tragically. Had either one considered their enviroment just a little more carefully, they could have both enjoyed this holiday season with their families.

    Take care everyone.

  13. The jury seems to have got it right. Not much else they could do. INvoluntary manslaughter or voluntary manslaughter is fairly easy to happen--when you punch people.