By Catherine Kozak on May 24, 2012
Moving his hand in a swooping motion and backing away, James Eric Presson demonstrated to his accusers how he wielded his knife two years ago to fend off an attacker in what he characterized as a life-and-death struggle on a rain-drenched night.
Presson, 25, took the stand Thursday to defend himself against a charge of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of Brandon A. Presgraves, 23, whose body was found in a flooded ditch near the Trading Post in Kill Devil Hills on June 7, 2010.Speaking in a soft drawl, his voice occasionally breaking, Presson told defense attorney Kris Felthousen that he carried his kitchen knife back and forth with him from his job at Barefoot Bernie’s in Kitty Hawk because he didn’t want it to be damaged or stolen. The day of the fight, he had worked a double shift at the restaurant and had planned to work again the next day.
Presson said his father had given him the knife for his birthday about three weeks before, and he kept it sheathed in a diabetic bag he always took with him.
At the request of District Attorney Frank Parrish, Presson moved in front of the jury to show the court how he had grabbed the knife out of the black bag he was carrying in his left hand.
“I backed up like this and pulled it out,” Presson said, the 8-inch silver blade of the knife glinting as he whipped it from what looked like a cloth-like shopping bag.
Parrish continued to aggressively question Presson about the defendant’s assertion that Presgraves chased him up the Beach Road and swung an unknown large object at his head, compelling the defendant to use his knife to ward him off as they battled from one side of the road to the other.
“When did he become disengaged from this object?” Parrish asked. “When did it leave his hand?”
“He had the object in his hand most of the time, “Presson responded, “so I don’t know when he lost it.”
Somehow, he ended up face down in an engorged ditch, Presson testified, with Presgraves holding his head under water in a head lock, apparently trying to drown him. Still holding the knife in his right hand, Presson testified, he stabbed at Presgraves’ side, until he felt Presgraves’ arm release his head.
“How long did Presgraves have you in a lock?” Parrish asked.
“I do not know,” Presson responded. “It felt like an eternity.”
Parrish asked if he had complained later about neck pain or difficulty swallowing.
“No, sir,” Presson answered.
Again, at Parrish’s behest, Presson demonstrated for the court, getting down on his knees and bending his head toward the floor.
“And I had my knife like this,” he said, his right arm angled behind his back. “I know his arm was around my throat and my neck.”
Presgraves, who was about the same size as Presson, knew how to do a submission, or sleeper, hold, according to earlier testimony from his father, Allen Presgraves.
Donnie Fox, who was working that night as a bouncer at Port O’ Call, painted a scene for the court of festering hostility being directed toward Presson, who had tried to restrain his female cousin from participating in a wet T-shirt contest. A group of her male friends, including Presgraves, called Presson provocative names, he said.
Fox said that after the incident, he observed Presgraves at the bar. “He had a very aggressive demeanor,” Fox said. “He was huffing, puffing. He looked very agitated.”
Next thing Fox knew, Pregraves had gone outside to confront Presson — who was waiting for a ride — and the two men were “locked up.”
Fox said he pulled Presgraves off of Presson and removed him bodily to the parking lot.
Presgraves started walking south down the Beach Road, and shortly after, Presson started walking north. A little while later, Fox testified, he stopped two friends from joining Presgraves in the road, saying he feared they would gang up on Presson.
Fox then went inside, and when he came back out, he testified, he saw Presgraves running down the road toward Presson, and saw them “lock up” again. Since it was raining, he said he couldn’t see much more than silhouettes and “a lot of splashing.”
Fox said he didn’t call police because he thought the outcome would be “a couple of buddies with a couple of bruises drinking a beer the next day.”
According to testimony from state medical examiner and foresic pathologist Dr. William Oliver, from Greenville, Presgraves suffered 34 wounds. Under cross examination from Felthousen, Oliver agreed that 22 of the wounds could be considered superficial.
He said the victim died from loss of blood from two stab wounds — one that penetrated the spleen into the lung, and another that pierced major blood vessels and partially eviscerated the small bowel. He also said that Presgraves had a .25 alcohol blood level, more than three times the legal limit of .08.
Oliver also said that the knife wounds, with many at a low angle, were consistent with a struggle, rather than a “rage stabbing” when someone is held down.
Presson testified that the whole experience was a nightmare that he relives constantly.
“I would take it back if I could — I would have just stayed home,” he said. “I feel so bad for all what the families have gone through.”
The trial in Dare County Superior Court is expected to conclude on Friday.