A Florida man charged with involuntary manslaughter after he punched a man who later died at a Strip casino last summer will argue to a jury he was defending himself and his family, his attorney said.
Benjamin Hawkins faces the one count for punching John Massie in the face over comments Massie made to Hawkins at O'Sheas casino July 6.
Las Vegas Justice of the Peace William Jansen ordered Hawkins to stand trial for Massie's death after a Tuesday hearing. Jansen said a jury must decide whether Hawkins acted in self-defense or not. It's not a matter of law, the judge said, but of fact.
After the hearing, Hawkins' attorney Jack Buchanan was confident that his client would be acquitted because he acted in self-defense.
The key piece of evidence in the case is footage of the incident from O'Sheas security cameras.
Members of the media who attended the lengthy hearing were allowed to view the footage but not record it, Jansen said.
The video showed Massie leaving the restroom near the food court at O'Sheas. Then Massie waited near the door.
Moments later, Hawkins leaves the bathroom and starts walking to a nearby gaming table where his wife and friends were waiting.
The video, which was inaudible, shows Massie and Hawkins exchanging words outside of the lavatory.
Hawkins then turns to leave. As he walks away, Massie with his hands in his pockets, takes three steps toward Hawkins' back.
Hawkins turns in a swift motion and throws a right-handed punch that lands on the left side of Massie's face. He was hit so hard his hands fly out of his pockets.
Massie, 47, lands on the ground, the back of his head slamming into the floor.
A county medical examiner testified that Massie died as a result of head trauma suffered when his head hit the floor.
Hawkins, 38, said he thought Massie was acting aggressively and that Massie had made racial comments before he turned and punched the Utah man in the face. Hawkins is black, and Massie was white. Both men were in Las Vegas on vacation.
But there was contradictory testimony about what exactly Massie said to Hawkins.
Immediately after the incident, Hawkins told a casino security guard that Massie, who was intoxicated on alcohol, was "talking (expletive)" to him and called him a racial slur, according to testimony.
But hours later when interviewed by homicide detectives, Hawkins said Massie referred to him as "black guy this or black guy that," Detective Jeff Rosgen testified.
There was also a witness who heard Massie refer to Hawkins as "a black man in a yellow shirt," Rosgen testified.
Prosecutor Maria Lavell said that there wasn't strong evidence that a slur was used and that Massie could have been making an observation about Hawkins.
During the hearing, Buchanan honed in on Massie walking up behind Hawkins outside of the bathroom. At one point Buchanan asked Rosgen whether he would feel threatened if someone who had confronted him walked up behind him. The detective agreed he would.
Buchanan also said that during the interrogation by Rosgen, Hawkins told the detective he was not angry over what Massie had said to him. Rather, he was scared.
Buchanan added that Massie had an opportunity to leave the area before Hawkins exited the restroom but stuck around.
"But for these actions there could have been a hate crime on Mr. Hawkins," Buchanan said.
After the hearing, Jansen agreed to allow Hawkins to be freed on his own recognizance. Hawkins had been free on $25,000 bail and has attended all of his hearings to date, though he lives in Florida, where he works as a high school administrator.
An arraignment hearing was set for April 23. Hawkins could enter a plea sooner if a video conference can be arranged, Jansen said.
Prosecutors had originally sought a murder charge against Hawkins but earlier this month dropped that count in favor of the lesser involuntary manslaughter charge.
Family members of both Massie and Hawkins attended the hearing.
Contact reporter Francis McCabe at email@example.com or 702-380-1039.