Race, provocation at issue in murder case

By Deanna Hohler Bottar Record-Courier staff writ Published:

An eight-man, four-woman jury must determine who was the aggressor in a Nov. 22 knife fight outside of a Kent residence that left one man dead and a second injured and whether race played a role in the altercation.

During opening arguments Tuesday, Assistant Portage County Prosecutor Eugene Muldowney said race had nothing to do with why Marcus Barnes acted as the aggressor near 976 W. Main St., engaging in a fight with Christopher Wawrin, 21, of Rootstown, and Christopher DeAngelis, 20.

Wawrin died Dec. 1 _ 10 days after an artery under his arm was severed by a single stab wound during the fight.

"This doesn't have anything to do with race," Muldowney said. "This was because people were drinking, including (Barnes)."

Public Defender Dennis Lager contended Barnes, the only African-American at a party attended by between 20 and 30 people, acted out of self-defense because Wawrin and DeAngelis used racial epithets against him and physically attacked him outside.

"He got the knife because he was outnumbered," Lager said. "He got the knife because he was scared."

Barnes' murder trial began Tuesday in Portage County Common Pleas Court before Judge Joseph Kainrad. The first witnesses in the case were to have been called this morning when the trial resumed at 9 a.m.

Barnes was indicted four times by a Portage County grand jury. He first was charged with two counts of felonious assault in connection with the fight. One of the charges was increased to murder when Wawrin died, and the other was upped to attempted murder last month.

During opening statements, Muldowney said the altercation occurred outside of a gathering of Rootstown High School alumni and students. Muldowney said Barnes and his girlfriend encountered a struggle, which Barnes tried to break up, when the couple arrived at the party.

Barnes then became "enraged and upset" and engaged in a heated argument with one of the people involved in the struggle and soon walked with him out onto the porch where the argument cooled off, Muldowney said.

"Witnesses will say the defendant's girlfriend started the argument up again," Muldowney said of what happened among a gathering of people on the porch before the fight with Wawrin and DeAngelis.

Barnes walked back through the house, saying something like, "I'll be back in 10 minutes to blow up the place," Muldowney said, quoting several witnesses who he said will testify about what they heard.

Barnes left the house and went to his car where he searched for a knife and then held it hidden in his hand, enticing partygoers to come fight with him, prosecutors said.

"There was no mistake he had the knife on purpose," Muldowney said. "He had it hidden on purpose."

Lager refuted Muldowney's claims, saying Barnes recognized Wawrin, who had a pierced eyebrow, a pierced tongue and pierced ears, from a previous gathering at the residence. Lager said Barnes himself was a victim of Wawrin's propensity toward violence and racism.

Before Kainrad ruled Lager could not cite alleged specific instances of behavior to show Wawrin was prone toward violence and racism, Lager described Wawrin's involvement in an alleged fight outside of a Kent bar where he and two white friends told their Rootstown classmates they were beaten by seven African-Americans.

Lager also said Wawrin tried to avenge an assault on a friend by breaking into someone's home and beating the resident up in December 1994. The charges filed against Wawrin in connection with that incident later were dropped.

The night of the November party, Barnes lingered in the parking lot waiting for his girlfriend _ not trying to start a fight _ when DeAngelis and Wawrin approached him, Lager said.

A neighbor, who was awakened by the ruckus created by the outdoor confrontation, reported hearing a female voice say, "What did you do to him?" and a male voice say, "You've got 10 minutes to get off the f***ing property."

The neighbor reported seeing a man knock a second man in the street, whom she feared would be struck by a passing vehicle. While Barnes was seated in the street after being knocked down, a fight between the three men ensued, Lager said.

"Witnesses will testify that the injuries Christopher Wawrin and Christopher DeAngelis received were not offensive," Lager said, describing how a seated Barnes tried to fend off blows from DeAngelis and Wawrin who were leaning over him and attacking him.

"These men reached into the defensive zone of a man who had been knocked into the street," Lager said.

Lager admitted Barnes lied about having a knife when he was questioned by Kent police concerning the fight after he turned himself in Nov. 22.

Lager also said Barnes' defense is self-defense and that Kainrad's decision to not allow information concerning Wawrin's alleged violent activities "significantly impacts my defense of self-defense."

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