By Catherine Kozak on May 22, 2012It was raining steady and was very dark the night James Eric Presson stabbed Brandon A. Presgraves. That’s one point the prosecution and defense agreed on as the second-degree murder trial of Presson began Tuesday in Dare County Superior Court.
Presgraves, 24, of Kill Devil Hills, was found dead early the morning of June 7, 2010 in a flooded ditch not far from Port O’ Call Restaurant & Gaslight Saloon, where he had earlier fought with Presson about a woman entering a wet T-shirt contest.
He had cuts on his face, head, neck, shoulder, chest and hand. His left side had been slashed open, exposing his internal organs.
Presson, then 23, told police he pulled out what he described as his kitchen butcher’s knife to defend himself after Presgraves followed him up the Beach Road wielding a 1- to 2-foot-long “solid object” that he swung at his head. Presson said he stabbed Presgraves, who then tried to drown him by holding his head under water. Presson told police that’s when he used his knife again.
In opening arguments, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Karpowicz told the jury that the defendant lacked “a reasonable belief” to fear serious harm, and even if he did, he used excessive force.
Karpowicz said there were 33 slash or stab wounds on Presgraves’ body, and only a minor cut on Presson’s knuckle. She asked the jury to keep both men’s injuries in mind when considering whether the incident qualifies as a case of self-defense.
But defense attorney Kris Felthousen depicted a young man who showed no indication that he had done anything but defend himself in a “vicious, violent struggle.” He had tried to remove himself, but “the aggressor” went after him, Felthousen told the jury.
After the stabbing, Presson called police himself and was polite and cooperative. He even directed them to the knife.
“This is not going to be a case where a defendant elects to forego testifying,” Felthousen said. “The evidence in this case, and the lack of evidence, shows this is a tragedy that did not have to happen.”
When Kill Devil Hills police Sgt. Brandon Henderson responded to the initial 911 call at 1:25 a.m, he heard “there might have been a cutting,” according to his testimony. When he found Presgraves’ shirtless body lying in a rain-filled ditch north of the Port O’ Call near the Trading Post in Kill Devil Hills, nearly his entire head was under water, with only the left side and his ear showing.
Henderson said he could tell he was dead, and he didn’t bother to take his pulse.
After learning that Presson had told another officer he threw the knife in bushes nearby, Henderson said he found it about 30 feet from the body. The knife, which was not exhibited in court, was about 12 inches long with an 8-inch blade, he testified.
Under cross examination by Felthousen, Henderson said he estimated the water was at least 10- to 12-inches deep in the ditch when he arrived and he was concerned about the possibility of the body floating away. By the time he left the scene about six hours later, much of the water had receded.
Henderson, in response to another question from Felthousen, testified that it would be “fair” to say the photographs the jury viewed of the body, which were taken at daybreak, were not representative of the amount of water in the ditch when he first saw Presgraves. He also said that there was enough rain in it for a head to be held under water, and that there was enough motion in the water to “affect” Presgraves’ hands.
“Perhaps a piece of wood would float away?” Felthousen asked. The officer said he did not know, but he told the prosecutor in her re-direct that he did not see anything floating by him.
Henderson said he knocked on doors across the street from the scene, where a number of vehicles were parked, but no one answered. He said he did not go back to try to find any occupants to interview.
Wearing a dark suit, bright blue shirt and wire-rim eyeglasses, his dark blond hair cropped neatly, Presson watched the testimony without expression. Five members of his family sat behind him, including two aunts, his parents and a cousin. Across the aisle, four rows of Presgraves’ family and friends watched the trial, several of them occasionally wiping away tears.
Taking the stand as a state’s witness, Presgraves’ father, Allen Presgraves, told the court that his son loved to skimboard and surf, and he owned a dog that he adored.
In response to a question by Felthousen, Presgraves denied he told Karpowicz that his son knew how to do a head lock, or submission hold, used by wrestlers.
In a dramatic end to the day, a recording of Presson talking to a Kill Devil Hills detective right after the incident was played. Det. Richard Johnson said Presson was soaking wet and appeared to be “a little bit nervous and a little bit scared.” He told Johnson that when he heard his cousin was going to enter a wet T-shirt contest, he picked her up and carried her outside.
Meanwhile, Presson said, the victim and his friends were “heckling” him. As the night progressed, according to Johnson’s testimony, Presson said that Presgraves “tried to throw a punch” at him. At some point, Presson called his father and started walking up the Beach Road. He heard footsteps, and turned around to see Presgraves pursuing him with the object in his hands.
In the recording, which was crackling but mostly understandable, Presson could be heard recounting the confrontation with Presgraves and the struggle in the ditch.
“I was under for a while,” Presson told the detective. “I felt like he was trying to kill me and he came at me with an object and then he tried to drown me after I cut him.”
The officer’s radio then could be heard reporting “a man down.”
Johnson said that Presson was arrested that night.
The trial is expected to last until Thursday or Friday.