Fry gets 10 years in slaying

BY ZHI XIONG | MAY 08, 2009 7:30 AM

Curtis Fry received the maximum 10-year sentence for killing Patrick McEwen, but some still left the Johnson County Courthouse outraged Thursday morning.

To be sure, they were mostly upset with 6th District Judge Mitchell Turner, who found Fry guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. Heavily intoxicated, Fry broke into McEwen’s apartment on Feb. 7, 2008 and beat the 75-year-old man to death.

Subtracting for jail overcrowding, good behavior, and the time Fry has already spent in prison, he could be eligible for parole in fewer than four years, Johnson County prosecutor Janet Lyness said Wednesday.

“Good lawyering pays off,” said UI law Professor David Baldus. “That’s why we learn these technicalities. A good lawyer can take control of the details.”

Baldus, who teaches criminal law, pointed to a division in opinion in the community; several lawyers told him they believe Turner made his decision in the right way.

The complex details of the case won Fry a conviction on a lesser charge than second-degree murder, generally a killing without premeditation. Fry’s attorneys, Peter Persaud and Quint Meyerdirk, lowered the verdict to voluntary manslaughter by citing a 1914 Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

They argued a confused and drunken Fry struck the elderly man because he thought McEwen was the intruder. A sober man would also have lashed out if he believed an intruder were attacking him, Turner said in the April 3 verdict reading.

Instead of a 50-year maximum sentence for second-degree murder, Fry’s penalty includes a 10-year prison sentence — of which he will likely serve roughly half — and $150,000 victim restitution to McEwen’s only known family member, an estranged 91-year-old sister.

Still smoldering from the verdict, McEwen’s supporters believe the infirm and “fearful” man would not dare to approach Fry and provoke him.

“I’ll try to put this in words that are printable,” said Lindsay Eaves-Johnson, a friend of McEwen’s from the Agudas Achim synagogue, 602 E. Washington St., following the sentencing. “The ruling was a shock to everyone.”

But she had trouble editing comments toward Turner, saying she would not vote for his retention in future elections.

Though Baldus said trial judges are rarely ousted from their spots based on their rulings, Turner nonetheless defended his decision in court.

“I do not apologize for my decision,” he said. “You have a right to believe if the system functioned properly or if it has gone awry.”

Reading the first of five victim-impact statements, Eaves-Johnson’s husband, James, hinted at the latter. He tried to put the verdict and sentencing into context by comparing it with vehicular homicide.

If Fry had hit McEwen and killed him while driving drunk, a judge would give him a mandatory 25-year prison sentence without probation under Iowa law. But there is one difference that could account for the apparent disparity: intent.

According to Gourley, Rehkemper and Lindholm PLC, a Des Moines-based firm specializing in drunk-driving defense, intent is not required in OWI/DUI-related offenses. In the Fry trial, however, the prosecution tried to establish intent or malice.

Lyness had noted McEwen’s numerous blunt-force wounds and some evidence of rational behavior from Fry — such as calling his friends to say he hit someone.

“Mr. Fry chose all of his actions,” Lyness said in closing. “This is not a tragedy for him.”

While Lyness recommended the 10-year maximum, Persaud simply pointed out Fry’s good character. He said he had faith his client would emerge from prison a productive member of the community. Though this time shedding fewer tears, Fry’s family and friends filled up most of the courtroom.

Fry was the last to speak. He did not defend himself throughout his trial in March, and heard his verdict without a word last month.

“I will spend the rest of my life in the knowledge that a good man died because of me,” he said before apologizing to his parents, Jim and Cathy Fry, in the audience.

After the sentencing, Jim and Cathy Fry left the courthouse without comment.

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