PORTLAND – Their encounter began when Ernest Weidul drove into a guardrail near the apartment building of Roger Downs Jr. on Forest Avenue.

Downs invited the stranger inside to use the telephone. The two men drank a bottle of coffee brandy that Weidul had with him, then bought a second bottle.

The next day, the driver was gone and Downs woke with injuries, including fractured bones in his face, bruised eyes and a cut lip. He did not remember how it had happened, but he knew he had been drinking with “Brian.”

The next day, May 7, 2010, Downs died at Mercy Hospital. Downs, 46, had gone into severe respiratory distress, his swollen larynx preventing the insertion of a breathing tube. The doctor did a tracheotomy, but it was too late.

On Friday, the jury in Weidul’s manslaughter trial was presented with the central question in the case: Did Downs die because of a brutal beating by Weidul or because of an undiagnosed and untreated case of pneumonia?

In his opening statement, Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said Weidul, whose middle name is Brian, bludgeoned Downs around the face and neck, and those injuries caused the closing of his airway.

Weidul, 52, told police that Downs was being disrespectful and tried to take a swing at him, Stokes told the jury. Weidul told a detective that he had hit Downs “too many” times, perhaps 30, the prosecutor said.

Amy Fairfield, one of Weidul’s attorneys, cast the fight as a matter of Weidul defending himself against a drunk and much larger man.

She told jurors that Downs’ injuries were limited to a discrete area around the face, and that the state would have them believe that Downs was bruised from the chin up but not from the chin down. She noted that he was taking a blood thinner called Coumadin.

Downs was susceptible to pneumonia, Fairfield said. He was an alcoholic who drank 15 drinks daily, smoked two packs a day and had a compromised immune system. The hospital, however, did not administer any antibiotics to him.

Fairfield also told the jury that it took Dr. Margaret Greenwald, the state medical examiner, six months to conclude that Downs died from streptococcus pneumonia. In the meantime, she said, Portland police quickly called the case a homicide and missed the actual cause of death.

Testimony on Friday started to fill in the details about what happened before and after the fight.

Downs’ stepson, Joshua Robertson, found Downs with a man with a ponytail — the way Weidul wears his hair — and an empty bottle of Allen’s Coffee Flavored Brandy on the table.

In response to questions about his statements to police, Robertson said Downs was hysterical, weeping, and kissed him so that their lips made contact.

Sometime after midnight, James Collins, a neighbor, heard Downs and another man. It sounded like they were drunk and joshing each other, Collins said, and Downs said something like, “I could kick your ass.”

Collins said the statement was not made in a threatening way.

Patrolman Eric McCusker, who went to the apartment after Downs called for an ambulance, said he had an evidence technician document Downs’ injuries because it looked like he had suffered an extremely serious assault.

McCusker planned to go back to the apartment to process it as a crime scene after Downs was released from the hospital.

After it was determined that Downs did not need surgery or acute traumatic care, Dr. Anna Schmid, an emergency room physician at Mercy Hospital, thought he could be discharged and referred to a plastic surgeon and an ear, nose and throat specialist.

His family, however, wanted Downs to stay in the hospital. He was admitted after his primary doctor recommended it.

The trial will continue next week.

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

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