PORTLAND — Jurors in the manslaughter trial of Ernest Weidul heard two sharply contrasting versions Tuesday of what took place in the Forest Avenue apartment of Roger Downs Jr. before his death.

The two men met on May 5, 2010, after Weidul scraped his pickup truck on a guardrail by Downs’ building. They drank large amounts of coffee brandy and got into a fight. After Downs woke up with injuries including broken facial bones, a lacerated lip and bruised eyes, he called for an ambulance.

Downs, 46, died after going into severe respiratory distress two days after his encounter with the defendant.

In their closing arguments, the prosecution and defense examined whether Weidul, 52, was acting in self-defense. They also suggested different ways that Downs could have contracted the pneumonia that was not diagnosed or treated before his death.

The jurors deliberated Tuesday afternoon without reaching a verdict. They resume deliberations Wednesday morning in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court.

Deputy Attorney General William Stokes said the evidence showed that Weidul must have had Downs pinned on the sofa as he pummeled the man’s face and neck repeatedly with his bare knuckles. Weidul told a police detective he swung perhaps 30 times and told a state caseworker that it was in the range of 40 times, the prosecutor noted.

The beating was prompted by Downs “messing with” Weidul – flicking his finger at him, touching his hair and poking at him, Stokes said. Asked whether Downs ever struck him, Weidul indicated he had connected once on his left cheek, Stokes said.

Weidul had the option of leaving the apartment at any time, but did not do so, Stokes said.

“This was alcoholic anger run amok. That’s what this is all about,” Stokes said.

But defense lawyer Thomas Connolly said Weidul used only the force he believed was necessary under the circumstances. Connolly described a series of escalating behavior by Downs that included dominance, hazing and about a dozen instances of physical contact.

Connolly said it was Downs, a much bigger man, who initiated the confrontation by swinging at Weidul.

He said the defendant – not Downs – was pinned on the couch with an arm trapped under his body. Weidul hit Downs repeatedly – but not nearly as many times as the prosecution maintains – as Downs continued to swing at him, Connolly said.

“He’s not out of control,” Connolly said, referring to his client. “He’s not hateful. He’s not blaming (Downs). He’s just saying (Downs) didn’t stop.”

When Weidul was picked up by police, he thought it was for a driving infraction and did not know Downs was dead and that he was a homicide suspect, Connolly said.

Weidul was reluctant to talk about drunk driving but had no hesitancy about discussing the fight, Connolly said. At the end of the police interview, the lawyer noted, Weidul says, “I don’t want to press charges against the other guy.”

The lawyers provided different interpretations of blood evidence to support their perspectives. Stokes noted that an evidence technician concluded that the blood was from someone who was stationary on the sofa and said that the pattern indicated Downs’ head was snapping back and forth with each blow.

Connolly said there was no blood on Weidul’s pants, indicating that he was the one pinned down, and that his shirt would have been bloodied differently if he had hit Downs as many times as the prosecution contends.

When he was at Mercy Hospital, a doctor tried to insert a breathing tube in Downs but was unable to because of swelling. The doctor performed a tracheotomy but it was too late.

Stokes said the closing of the airway was caused by blunt-force trauma. He told the jury that the defense’s expert witness, Dr. Robert Belliveau, wants them to believe that Downs had aspiration pneumonia – caused by foreign material getting into the lungs – and that it had nothing to do with being beaten. The prosecutor said it makes more sense that Downs aspirated after passing out from the beating and then inhaled material that was in his mouth.

Connolly said that Weidul had bronchitis that Maine Medical Center warned could develop into pneumonia. The likely scenario, Connolly said, is that Downs got pneumonia by sharing a glass with the defendant as they consumed two bottles of liquor.

As an alcoholic with a comprised immune system and empty stomach, he said, Downs was a perfect host for this “super Weidul bug” and aspirated after vomiting.

 

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at: [email protected]

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