By Ray King
An Arkansas prison inmate serving 20-years for manslaughter failed Wednesday to convince the Arkansas Court of Appeals that the evidence was insufficient to convict him.
Damont Ewells, 40, was convicted as an habitual offender of manslaughter in the Sept. 19. 2017 death of James Walker, who, like Ewells, was an inmate at the Cummins Unit of the Department of Corrections.
Trial testimony showed that Ewells and Walker were housed in the same barracks at Cummins and on Sept. 19, 2017, the two got into a verbal altercation in the bathroom of the barracks. Two other Inmates testified that Ewells threw a single punch which hit Walker in the jaw, knocked him out and caused him to fall backward and hit his head on the floor. The witnesses testified that Ewells then left the area and did not attempt to aid Walker.
Walker was taken to UAMS where it was determined that he was brain dead and life support was removed the following day. Trooper Billy McCradic, an investigator with the State Police, testified that there were no camera footage but he had determine through interviews and statements that Walker had been struck in the face and fell back into the shower, striking his head.
Associate State Medical Examiner Dr. Jennifer Forsyth testified that Walker died as a result of blunt-force trauma to the back of his head that created swelling in the brain.
Ewells testified in his own defense and said fighting was normal in prison and that he did not intend to knock Walker down. He said that although he was told he had hit Walker and did not deny doing so, he said he had no recollection of it. He said Walker must have said something that made him angry and he blacked out.
On appeal, Ewells contends that Circuit Judge Jodi Raines Dennis erred when she denied his motion for a directed verdict because prosecutors failed to prove the required mental state of “recklessness” required for the offense of manslaughter.
Under state law, a motion for a directed verdict is to be made at the end of the prosecution case and again at the close of all the evidence. That motion must state directly why the evidence was insufficient. A simple claim that the evidence was insufficient is not acceptable.
In his motion at the end of the state’s case, Ewells contended that there was a lack of testimony that he did anything reckless and no witness made an in-court identification that he was the one wo struck Walker.
However, when he made the motion at the end of all the testimony, he only made reference to the lack of identification and did not mention the recklessness aspect.
Writing for the court, Associate Justice Kenneth Hixson said when a defendant makes a second motion for a directed verdict, they must incorporate the arguments they made in the first motion and Ewells did not do that.
Ewells is serving his sentence at Varner Supermax and will be eligible to apply for parole in 2042.