By Catherine Kozak | Outer Banks Voice on May 25, 2012After deliberating for nearly three hours, a jury in Dare County Superior Court on Friday found James Eric Presson guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the stabbing death two years ago of 23-year-old Brandon Presgraves.
Superior Court Judge Walter Godwin sentenced Presson to serve 73 to 97 months — about seven years to eight years — in state prison. He will be given credit for time served.
Before the verdict was delivered at about 5:55 p.m., Godwin warned family and friends to refrain from making any sounds or physical reactions, promising he would have anyone who defied him held in contempt. Still, subdued sobbing could be heard after the guilty verdict was read.
Although Presson, 25, was charged with second-degree murder, the jury found that his actions did not meet the higher standard of malice.
Presgraves was found dead in a flooded ditch on June 7, 2010, just north of Port O’ Call Restaurant and Gaslight Saloon, where the men had fought earlier that night. Presson told police he stabbed him with his chef’s knife in self-defense after Presgraves attacked him with a large object and then tried to drown him.
Both men lived in Kill Devil Hills.
But as the prosecution emphasized to jurors, the object was never found, and Presson had no injuries after the fight.
In his instructions to the jury, Godwin said, in part, that voluntary manslaughter would be an appropriate finding if the defendant acted in self-defense but had used excessive force.
Testimony from the medical examiner during the five-day trial revealed that Presgraves suffered 34 wounds, 22 of them superficial. Two deep stab wounds resulted in the massive loss of blood that killed Presgraves.
Defense attorney Kris Felthousen told the jury in his closing argument that Presson did everything to avoid tangling with Presgraves that night. But Presgraves, who was intoxicated, not only provoked him repeatedly, he purposely turned around on the beach road to pursue him, “filled with liquid courage,” Felthousen said.
Presson, he said, had every reason to believe his life was in danger.
“This was tremendously tragic, and tremendously avoidable in so many ways,” Felthousen said. “This was a tragedy, but it is not a crime.”
A person is justified to kill in self-defense, he said, if he has an honest belief he could suffer serious bodily injury.
Even if Presson mistook Presgraves’ rolled-up T-shirt for a large object, as District Attorney Frank Parrish alleged, Felthousen said that doesn’t take away the threat that Presson perceived, based on the seething hostility that Presgraves had displayed toward him. He also said the victim was holding Presson under water in a sleeper hold when the fatal stab wounds were most likely inflicted.
Felthousen reminded the jury that Presson and his father met voluntarily with police right after the encounter, and were cooperative and forthcoming in every possible way.
But in the prosecution’s closing argument, Parrish stressed the lack of evidence of a weapon that would warrant Presson defending himself with a 12-inch knife against Presgraves, calling him “an unarmed man.”
“There’s no way that the force he used was appropriate at all,” Parrish told the jury. “It was vicious if you look at the results for Brandon, not so much if you look at the results for the defendant.”
Parrish then showed the jury photographs of both men, taken after the stabbing, showing first one of Presson’s unmarked body, then of Presgraves’ gruesomely bloodied body. He repeated that for several different parts of each of their bodies.
The men were about the same size, Parrish said, but the wounds show that the odds favored only one of them.
“Think about that as you ponder the fierceness of Brandon’s assault,” he said, “because this wasn’t much of a fight.”