Florida coach found guilty in punching death of Utahn in Vegas casino
Published: November 30, 2012 03:41PM
Updated: November 30, 2012 11:37PM
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FILE - This Feb. 28, 2012 file photo shows Benjamin Gerard Hawkins during a preliminary hearing in District Court in Las Vegas, Nev. Hawkins is due to testify Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, that he endured taunts and racial insults from a Utah man he's accused of killing with a single punch outside a Las Vegas Strip casino restroom. Hawkins is charged with involuntary manslaughter in the July, 2011 death of John Massie, 38. Hawkins told police he was defending himself when he punched Massie following derogatory comments about his race. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Sun, Steve Marcus, File)

Las Vegas • A former Florida high school football coach and teacher was convicted Friday of involuntary manslaughter in the death of a Utah man he knocked down with a single punch after the two men exchanged words in a Las Vegas casino men’s room.

Benjamin Gerard Hawkins stood still and stared straight ahead as his wife and other family members wept as the verdict was read in Clark County District Court.

The case stemmed from the July 2011 death of John Massie, 46, of Roy, Utah.

Hawkins’ family had hoped for an acquittal after he testified that Massie derided him with racial comments, tapped him three times on the chest and shoulder as they exchanged words in the men’s room, and approached him again after they walked separately to the gaming floor at O’Shea’s Casino.

Hawkins, 39, and his family from Gainesville, Fla., declined comment outside the courtroom.

His lawyer, Jack Buchanan, said he’ll seek probation, but Hawkins could face up to four years in state prison.

Prosecutor Maria Lavell told Judge Valerie Adair that Massie’s family didn’t want Hawkins jailed pending sentencing Feb. 14.

“They want him to be able to go home with his family,” she said.

The judge said she didn’t think Hawkins was a flight risk or a threat to the community, and let him remain free despite the felony verdict. He has been on administrative duties at Bradford County High School in Starke, Fla., pending the outcome of the case.

Massie’s sister, Mary Vinup of Warner Robins, Ga., said outside the courtroom the two families were tragically affected by the sudden death of her brother, a decorated Air Force veteran who served in the Gulf War and worked as an occupational safety and health worker at Hill Air Force Base.

“My brother was a really good man,” Vinup said. “He loved his family. He took care of our mother after our father died. He just went to have fun. He was not a racist.”

Hawkins is black. Massie was white. The two men exchanged words in the restroom before Hawkins punched Massie once in the jaw, and a medical examiner testified that Massie died after his head hit the floor.

Hawkins testified that Massie appeared intoxicated and wouldn’t leave him alone in the men’s room. He told police he was defending himself from a man he believed was threatening him.

“All I was doing was washing my hands and he was making racial statements to me,” Hawkins said. “After he touched me a second time, I told him to get the [expletive] away from me and don’t touch me again. He slaps me on the shoulder and says, ‘You’ll be all right.’

“I told him, ‘If you touch me again, I’ll knock you the [expletive] out,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins said Massie spoke to him again on the casino floor, and surveillance video shows the two men a few feet apart before Hawkins turned and threw the punch. Massie’s hands were in his pockets.

Police who interviewed Hawkins didn’t ask him to submit to a blood-alcohol test, but Hawkins testified he had several vodka and orange juice drinks after he and his group arrived the previous morning in Las Vegas.

The jury was told that a toxicology report found Massie had a blood-alcohol percentage of 0.172, or more than twice the legal limit for driving in Nevada.

Lavell noted discrepancies and inconsistencies between Hawkins’ accounts to police hours after the incident and the detailed accounts Hawkins provided to the jury on Thursday.

Police said Hawkins never specified the racial taunts or what made him feel threatened.