Fry guilty of manslaughter

BY ZHI XIONG | APRIL 06, 2009 7:40 AM

Curtis Fry isn’t a murderer, 6th District Judge Mitchell Turner decided on April 3.

For beating 75-year-old Patrick McEwen to death in February 2008, Fry could serve up to 10 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter — not second-degree murder, the state’s original charge.

By 9:30 a.m. on April 3, a crowd of Fry’s family and friends trickled up and down the Johnson County Courthouse stairwell. Dozens bowed their heads and linked arms for prayer. Large cross pendants — some shaped like dogtags — gleamed over sweaters and jackets.

They came from Wilton, Iowa, where 22-year-old Fry is still known as a skilled athlete and religious man — so peaceful, in fact, the local police chief doubted he would be aggressive enough to become a cop.

They saw another side of him on Feb. 7, 2008, Fry’s 21st birthday, when he and friends traveled to Iowa City to celebrate.

“It is at this point that the sadly tragic 21st birthday rite of passage scenario began to unfold,” Turner told the standing-room-only courtroom.

The evening hours could be counted by “birthday shots.” By 1:30 the next morning, Fry had been kicked out of One-Eyed Jakes, 18 S. Clinton St., for being extremely drunk. He staggered away from his group.

Based on testimonies from a five-day trial in March, Turner — not a jury — pieced together what happened next.

Turner believes Fry entered a building on Van Buren Street thinking it was his own apartment complex, 503 Maple St., in Wilton. Experts had testified Fry was certainly blacked out when he burst into apartment No. 1.

But it was 513 S. Van Buren St. in Iowa City, and it was McEwen’s apartment.

The man had no known relatives except for an enigmatic sister. The members of Agudas Achim, 602 E. Washington St., were his adopted family. No bar or bat mitzvah was complete without a present — usually a computer-generated drawing — from McEwen, whose physical and mental challenges kept him from holding down a job.

On Feb. 8, 2008, one of McEwen’s neighbors found his body on his bathroom floor. His door was cracked and broken, his face bruised and bloody. An autopsy showed McEwen died from blunt-force trauma to his head and neck, though other evidence indicated he survived long enough to try to clean the blood off himself.

Iowa City police recovered Fry’s wallet and blood-stained jeans from McEwen’s apartment.

Fry’s mother kept her head buried in her husband’s shoulder throughout the narrative. Jim Fry — like his son, who was dressed in a crisp white shirt and tie and flanked by his attorneys — looked straight ahead during the roughly hour-long verdict reading.

The state charged Fry with second-degree murder, which generally refers to a killing that was not premeditated. The prosecution, led by Johnson County County Attorney Janet Lyness, had to show Fry was aware of — and created — a grave and unjustifiable risk of death for McEwen.

The prosecuting attorneys almost did.

“Had Judge Turner found him guilty of second-degree murder, the Iowa Supreme Court would have affirmed it,” said UI law Professor David Baldus.

Turner found Fry guilty of voluntary manslaughter. The lesser charge — which Fry’s defense team offered to plead guilty to nine months ago but was rejected by the state — did not lie in the intoxication defense. Instead, attorneys Peter Persaud and Quint Meyerdirk argued Fry struck McEwen because he believed he was in his own home and McEwen was in fact the intruder.

The verdict came down at 11:18 a.m. It was a relieved crowd that spilled through the doorway — for the most part.

Rabbi Jeff Portman, who had known McEwen for more than 20 years, rose from his front-row seat. Though Portman spoke passionately about alcohol’s role in the crime, he was already resigned to the “no-win” situation.

“It was going to be sad no matter what the judge said,” he said before briefly exchanging condolences with Jim Fry at the bottom of the stairs.

Lyness was nowhere to be found in the throng, but Persaud, in a pale pink tie and gray suit, stood out. Before Turner said the words, Persaud had a feeling the case was going their way.

“It was the language in the ruling,” he said. “He talked about [Fry] acting with passion.”

Through tears, Jim and Cathy Fry apologized for what their son had done. A crowd of their family and friends gathered outside, but by noon, the courthouse lawn was quiet again.

Fry’s sentencing is set for May 7 at 10 a.m.

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