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Judge declares mistrial in climbing-wall case

Arguments on both sides centered on a “standard of care” for climbing walls.
Friday, June 18, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:13 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

Boone County Circuit Judge Gene Hamilton declared a mistrial Thursday when jurors returned deadlocked after nearly nine hours of deliberations in the second-degree involuntary manslaughter trial of Marcus Floyd.

Assistant Prosecutor Richard Hicks said if there is a new trial, he imagined it would be a couple of months after a July 5 hearing date set by Hamilton.

“We’ve got to talk to the family, see where the defense is standing right now,” Hicks said.

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Marcus Floyd, 31, owner of Columbia Climbing Gym and Portable Wall, was charged with second-degree involuntary manslaughter. “His life's in shambles,” his attorney Matt Woods said in closing arguments. “He is so sorry.”

Floyd, 31, owner of Columbia Climbing Gym and Portable Wall, was arrested in August and later charged with second-degree involuntary manslaughter after a Jefferson City woman fell to her death on his climbing wall in July. Christine Ewing, 22, fell nearly 25 feet when the cable supporting her snapped. The death investigation revealed the cable was corroded and starting to fray.

Craig Ewing, Christine’s father, expressed his emotions about the mistrial Thursday night outside the courtroom doors.

“We lost to start with,” he said. “There’s no winning.”

In closing arguments Thursday, defense attorneys for Marcus Floyd said he was the victim of a poor design and an unscrupulous business deal.

“His life’s in shambles,” defense attorney Matt Woods said. “He is so sorry.”

Hicks made the opposite argument.

“Tell Marcus that the bucks stops here,” Hicks said. “The responsibility stopped with Marcus. He violated the law.”

Arguments on both sides hinged on a “standard of care” for climbing walls. Both questioned whether or not Floyd’s failure to inspect the cables on his climbing wall was “a gross deviation from the standard of care, which a reasonable person would exercise in this situation.”

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Christine Ewing, 22, fell nearly 25 feet when a cable supporting her snapped. "We lost to start with," Craig Ewing, her father, said outside the courtroom after the mistrial was declared. “There's no winning."

Prosecutors rested after calling Eddie Adelstein to the stand. Adelstein was the acting medical examiner for Boone and Callaway counties at the time Ewing died. Ewing’s family members cried as Adelstein described the fatal injuries she sustained the night of July 14.

The cause of death was “blunt impact to head and neck,” he said.

John Randick, the St. Louis County mechanical inspector who examined and passed Floyd’s climbing wall at a church carnival two months before Ewing’s fall, also testified Thursday. That day in May 2003, Randick found Floyd had no permit to operate the climbing wall in the state of Missouri, so he requested Floyd present proof of $2 million worth of insurance. Randick testified he then performed a 20-minute to 30-minute inspection of the climbing wall while it was upright.

When Randick unsuccessfully tried to move the rubber sheath meant to protect climber’s hands from the base of the climbing cable, he abandoned the idea and decided that the cable was sound, from what he could see of it. Randick said he believed his inspection was adequate at the time. He also said he performs inspections differently today.

“We would move the sheaths now,” he said.

Prosecutors focused on the fact that Randick was not a certified member of NAARSO, the National Association of Amusement Ride Officials, unlike Larry Watson, the inspector who testified Wednesday. Watson, chief elevator and amusement parks inspector for the State Fire Marshal’s Office, inspected Floyd’s climbing wall during the investigation into Ewing’s fall. He testified that one wouldn’t necessarily be able to detect weaknesses in the cables unless the wall was in its horizontal position.

“To inspect the cable you have to check the cable from end to end,” he said.

Hicks argued Floyd, as owner, was responsible for thoroughly inspecting his climbing wall. By failing to do so, and putting lives in jeopardy each time he sold a climb, Hicks said, Floyd ignored the standard of care and is criminally negligent.

Defense attorneys Eng and Woods argued the prosecution had not shown a standard of care for climbing walls because one does not exist. They said Floyd could not be held criminally negligent against a nonexistent standard.

With Floyd’s and Ewing’s friends and families looking on, Woods spoke of the tragedy of Ewing’s death.

“Christine was much too young,” he said. “There’s no question that this is a tragedy all the way through.”

He reminded the jury of their responsibility to “do what’s right,” and emphasized the weightiness of deciding that a man is a convicted felon.

The mothers of Marcus Floyd and Christine Ewing embraced just before the lunch recess Wednesday, Kathleen Schmitz comforting a sobbing Carol Floyd.

“As parents we both suffer,” Schmitz said. “I know exactly how you feel.”


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