Climbing wall trial starts

Focus is on a snapped safety cable
in the death of Jefferson City woman
Wednesday, June 16, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:32 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

A snapped cable dominated testimony Tuesday during the first day of the trial of the climbing-wall owner charged with involuntarily causing the death of a Jefferson City woman in July outside a Mid-Missouri Mavericks’ game.

Marcus Floyd is on trial for second-degree involuntary manslaughter in the death of Christine Ewing, 22, who fell more than 20 feet to her death when a cable broke on the portable climbing wall that Floyd owned. Floyd has pleaded not guilty to the charge.

Both Assistant Prosecutor Richard Hicks and defense attorney Pat Eng handed three of the witnesses the cable at various times during testimony, asking them to take a look at the stretch of cable that had been attached to Ewing’s harness with a carabiner.

Hicks explained in opening statements that second-degree involuntary manslaughter indicates a “failure to be aware of a substantial or unjustifiable risk,” while first-degree involuntary manslaughter, which Floyd was originally charged with, means “knowing and ignoring the existence of a danger.” The lesser charge carries a possible sentence of no more than five years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

Floyd made notes throughout much of the testimony. During recesses he occasionally spoke briefly with relatives and supporters, including his mother.

Testimonies begin

Officer Darin Chance of the MU Police Department was working at the Mavericks game the night Ewing fell. He testified that he inspected the cable with another officer later that night and that when he looked for the break point he was unable to pull back the rubber sheath that encased the cable. He made a small incision in the rubber with a pocketknife, he said, and saw that the cable was a “rusty, red color” and was wrapped in duct tape. The officers seized the cable as evidence and later seized the other end of the cable, also wrapped in duct tape, which they had to remove from the wall with a pair of bolt cutters.

Todd Huhman, 19, also testified about his experience working with the tight rubber sheaths that are meant in part to protect climbers’ hands from the cables. Huhman met Floyd when he was a student at Rock Bridge High School, where Floyd was involved in building a rock-climbing wall; Floyd later gave Huhman a job at his business, Columbia Climbing Gym. Huhman said he had never seen duct tape on cables and was at least twice instructed by Floyd to run a rag over cables with light oil to check for rust or corrosion. He said he told Floyd he was concerned because he wasn’t able to check under the tight rubber sheaths for corrosion.

Hicks also asked Caleb O’Brien, the lone operator of the climbing wall the night that Ewing fell, about his training. O’Brien said that he had never been trained by Floyd in inspecting the wall or cables and that there were no safety mats, helmets, warnings or waivers featured at the climbing wall. O’Brien said he recalled sometimes seeing duct tape on cables but never asked Floyd about it because he “figured it was to keep the sheath from slipping up.”

Opening statements

In opening statements, Hicks emphasized O’Brien’s youth and inexperience; O’Brien was 16 and an employee of Floyd’s when he was operating the climbing wall by himself the night Ewing fell.

Hicks said Floyd was aware the cables were due for replacement and the company in California that manufactured the climbing wall, Extreme Engineering, offered advice on its Web site and special deals for replacing equipment. Hicks quoted Floyd in an e-mail he wrote to Extreme Engineering, in which he inquired about inspections and replacing equipment and noted that it “seemed like it could get expensive.”

In his opening statement, Eng said Floyd was a hardworking, upstanding citizen with “a reputation for being safety-conscious.” He described Floyd as a man with a passion for climbing who wanted to “give back to the climbing community.” Floyd required his employees to take a safety test, Eng said, because he was a “stickler” and a “safety nut.” Eng set a roll of duct tape in front of jurors as he argued that it was the greed and negligence of the wall’s prior owner that caused Floyd to be unaware of the wall’s hidden dangers.

Eng also said Floyd frequently climbed the portable wall and allowed his loved ones to climb it.

Ewing’s mother, Kathleen Schmitz, opened the day’s testimony by describing the night her daughter died. Relatives and friends sitting in the first row cried quietly as she told how Ewing reached the top of the wall and looked down, smiling, to ask how she should get down. She pushed off from the wall, which made her mother nervous, Schmitz said. She said she was about to tell Ewing not to do it again when the cable broke.

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