The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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January 17, 2014

Manslaughter trial defendant testifies

LEWISBURG — “I did not intend to kill Ira Harris.”

That was the testimony of Antonio Dewayne Smith, on trial in Greenbrier County for allegedly pushing the 23-year-old Harris to his death down a steep flight of stairs.

Charged with voluntary manslaughter, Smith took the stand in his own defense Thursday, maintaining that when he told police only hours after the Feb. 26, 2012, incident that he had not impelled Harris down the stairs, it was because he could not admit to himself what had happened.

“I could not bring myself to believe that I had pushed Ira down the stairs,” Smith said, acknowledging that while he now believes he did, indeed, push Harris, he did not mean to kill the young man, who was employed as an entertainer by both The Greenbrier resort and Greenbrier Valley Theatre.

“I never intended for him to lose his life,” a tearful Smith told the jury.

Smith’s hour-long testimony at times contradicted other witnesses’ accounts of events that transpired during an impromptu party in and around a Lewisburg apartment that tragic night.

All agreed, however, that what had been a verbal dispute over racial issues between Harris and medical student Ashton Thompson escalated dramatically when Smith intervened on behalf of his boyfriend (Thompson). The altercation turned physical when Smith slapped Harris in the face, an attempt, Smith said, “to get his attention and calm him down.”

In response, Harris snatched a cooking pot from an overhead rack in the kitchen where the incident took place, prompting friends to separate the combatants.

One of Harris’ friends, Corinne Tork, testified that she wrapped an arm around Harris and coaxed him out of the room and onto the landing of the 28-step staircase that led to a street-side exit from the building. As she and Harris reached the third step, Tork said, “He (Harris) was jerked forward from my arm.”

It was in that instant, Tork said she believes, that Smith pushed Harris, who then wobbled, seeming to catch his balance momentarily before plunging down the full length of the steep stairwell.

Tork said she heard Thompson ask Smith, looking down from the top of the staircase, “Tony, why did you do that?” She said she didn’t hear Smith’s answer.

In his account of that moment, Smith testified that he responded to Thompson’s question by saying, “I did not touch him,” telling the jury that he was already in denial about the incident.

In addition to Tork, other prosecution witnesses who offered perspectives on the events of the night in question included Brian Adam Bostic, a Lewisburg resident who said he saw Smith push Harris in the back and watched helplessly as the young man tumbled to the tile floor nearly 29 feet below.

Also testifying was Trevor Pittenger, who at the time of the incident was also an entertainer at both Greenbrier Valley Theatre and The Greenbrier. Pittenger said he got caught up in the altercation in the kitchen, testifying that Smith hit him on the nose.

Though he didn’t see the alleged push or Harris’ fall, Pittenger said he also heard Thompson ask in the aftermath, “Tony, why did you push him?”

Less than 24 hours after the incident, Harris succumbed to the massive cranial injuries he sustained in that fall.

With all testimony now having concluded, the judge is expected to instruct and charge the jury when the trial resumes at 9 this morning. After attorneys for both sides deliver closing arguments, the case will rest in the hands of the six-woman, six-man jury.

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com

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