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Aug 11, 2010 9:36 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Jermaine Holmes sits down with Press in jailhouse interview

Aug 11, 2010 9:36 AM

In the back of a shared taxi in the early morning hours of May 24, 2009, Jermaine Holmes said that a drunken stranger handed him a fishing knife.

The man, who was broke, had offered it in exchange for his portion of the cab fare, Mr. Holmes said. The knife came in a white box with a fisherman on it. Having no use for it himself, Mr. Holmes said he planned to give the knife to his father or brother as a gift. He never got the chance.

That ill-fated acquisition was one of several key elements of a story Mr. Holmes told during a late July interview in the visiting area of Suffolk County Jail in Riverside, the day before he was shipped to a prison upstate to begin a 20-year sentence for fatally stabbing another man in a fray outside the Hampton Bays Diner later that Sunday morning in 2009.

Even though he admitted to the crime when he pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter almost exactly one year after the stabbing, Mr. Holmes, 26, portrayed himself as a fundamentally “peaceful” man who was a victim of circumstance that night.

The knife, he said, normally would never have been in his hand. The brawl in the diner parking lot, he said, should never have broken out. If he had not been so drunk, or if he had emerged from the diner early enough to keep the fight involving his older brother from starting, then both Mr. Holmes and his victim—26-year-old Calvin Butts of Riverhead—may have escaped their respective fates, he said.

“Wrong place, wrong time,” Mr. Holmes said. “People, places, things. It’s just the downfall here.”

That narrative is at the center of his appeal. Mr. Holmes said authorities overlooked the sudden and uncharacteristic nature of his crime, and said he planned mount a legal fight against a charge that he said was too harsh to begin with, and a sentence that he said he does not deserve.

“I’m still fighting the case,” said Mr. Holmes, who filed his notice of appeal on July 18. “Because I feel justice wasn’t served.”

Question Of Intent

A grand jury originally indicted Mr. Holmes on a charge of second-degree murder, a felony. In a plea deal with prosecutors this May, he pleaded guilty to a less serious charge of first-degree manslaughter, also a felony, forgoing his right to a trial. The risk of a murder sentence—25 years to life—was too great, he said.

But, according to Mr. Holmes and his attorney, Susan Menu, the initial murder charge was too harsh. If he had been charged with manslaughter from the start, they said, they would have taken the case to trial.

“It was a very, very triable case,” said Ms. Menu, whose office is in Riverhead. “But it wasn’t such a triable case if you’re facing 25 to life, which is what the murder charge was. So they had me boxed in.”

The difference between the two charges is based on an individual’s intent to kill. Assistant District Attorney James Chalifoux, the prosecutor in the case, said that if he were arguing for a murder conviction in front of a jury, he would point to the fact that Mr. Holmes stabbed Mr. Butts five times—four times in the back and once in the shoulder.

In a detailed sentencing memorandum Ms. Menu filed this spring, and in subsequent interviews, she countered that the stabbing was an “anomaly” that occurred in “seconds,” during a drunken attempt by Mr. Holmes to protect his brother, Jimmy Dean, who they say was on the losing end of a brawl in the diner’s parking lot, and whom Mr. Holmes feared Mr. Butts would have killed.

The facts of the case were never aired at trial, and both sides said witnesses were hard to come by and hesitant to speak—or, in the case of the defense, unanimously silent, Ms. Menu said.

“The issue at trial would have been, was Jermaine Holmes reasonable in concluding Calvin Butts posed an immediate threat to his brother, or did he simply panic and incorrectly assess the situation causing him to take the life of another unnecessarily?” Ms. Menu wrote in the sentencing memorandum.

‘Something Serious
Happened’

Mr. Holmes said he was resting at his grandmother’s house in Northampton early in the morning of May 24, 2009, when his 32-year-old brother, Jimmy Dean, called him to come to the Hampton Bays Diner to celebrate the 50th birthday of their father’s friend, Charles Langhorn.

At the diner’s bar, Mr. Holmes said, he had about nine drinks over approximately two hours and was preparing to leave at around 4 a.m. when most of those inside the establishment emptied out into the parking lot, where a fight had broken out and some 30 people had gathered.

Mr. Holmes said he remembers seeing his brother on the pavement, bleeding, under attack from Chris Butts, the younger brother of the victim. Mr. Holmes declined to describe what happened next—in part, he said, because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his appeal. He also said that his memory is hazy.

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