Rabbi on Fry verdict, expected today: ‘It’s a no-win situation’

BY ZHI XIONG | APRIL 03, 2009 7:37 AM

Rabbi Jeff Portman plans to be at the Johnson County Courthouse this morning. It would be the fifth time in the last month.

After a trial that concluded March 13, Curtis Fry, 22, will hear today whether 6th District Judge Mitchell Turner has found him guilty of the second-degree murder — which carries a penalty of 50 years in prison — of Patrick McEwen, a member at Portman’s synagogue.

Fry is accused of breaking into the 75-year-old’s apartment and beating him to death. It is a case that shuttled some locals from initial outrage to unnerving shivers. And alcohol abuse is perhaps the crux of it.

At least, it is the defense team’s central argument — one that shook Portman out of a calm account of his 20-some-year acquaintance with McEwen.

“If I had my way, I would outlaw all the bars or get rid of the drink specials,” said Portman from his office in Agudas Achim, 602 E. Washington St.

On Feb. 7, 2008, Fry traveled from Wilton, Iowa, to celebrate his 21st birthday. On day two of the non-jury trial, Turner heard how the evening found Fry — whom witnesses later described as an honest, religious, and peaceful high-school athlete — reeling around the downtown bars.

Iowa City police arrested Fry the next day. They said they recovered his wallet and blood-stained jeans from McEwen’s apartment on South Van Buren Street.

An autopsy showed McEwen died from blunt-force trauma to his head and neck. His door was cracked and the lock broken in, and investigators found his body lying between the bathtub and toilet of his bathroom.

Fry’s lawyers, Peter Persaud and Quint Meyerdirk, said the state failed to prove malice or evil intent in the incident, arguing Fry did not know what he was doing. An expert testified that Fry was certainly blacked out at the time of the slaying. The question is whether his state of extreme intoxication should secure a lesser sentence.

UI alumnus Nick Taylor on Thursday did not recognize Fry’s name at first. With a prompt, he rattled off several details of the case, including how Fry had allegedly blacked out the night McEwen was killed.

Taylor is a manager and bartender at Atlas Bar & Grill, 102 Iowa Ave. Though he acknowledged a “high-volume” establishment serving hundreds of customers may find it difficult to keep track of guests’ drunken behavior, he said bars have some responsibility.

He said a “stiff penalty” is in line.

“I could get black-out drunk, but I don’t think I could kill a man,” Taylor said.

Portman encouraged his congregation to attend the verdict reading.

“It’s a no-win situation,” Portman said. “I do feel for the defendant.”

Turner will announce his decision at 10 a.m.

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