Trial starts for Jack Didley's club manager accused of assault

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 29, 2013 

As security manager at a popular downtown Kennewick club, Matthew Thomas Hibbard "has a duty to keep disorderly people out of the bar," his lawyer said Monday.

So when a highly intoxicated and aggressive patron who had been kicked out came running back to the front door, Hibbard grabbed the man around the chest and pulled him away.

But Hibbard, once he saw two fists raised near his face, quickly let go of the man so he could get in a better position to protect himself from possible blows, John Jensen explained to a Benton County Superior Court jury.

What the 41-year-old Jack Didley's manager didn't realize until he later watched a security video was that his bouncer had grabbed Ben Ensign's feet. That meant when Hibbard backed away, the customer's head hit the sidewalk, Jensen said in opening statements Monday.

Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller argued that Hibbard's actions last July 4 weren't so innocent. He charged Hibbard with third-degree assault with aggravating circumstances.

Miller told the jury that Hibbard's conduct rises to the level of criminal negligence because he held Ensign in a chokehold while the bouncer grabbed Ensign's feet and helped lift him to chest height.

Testimony will show the customer was lying straight and was not struggling as he was held up, yet Hibbard "either deliberately dropped or thrust Ben Ensign down so that he hit his head first on the concrete pavement," Miller said. "The sound of Ben's head hitting the concrete pavement was heard from witnesses many feet away, and Ben Ensign immediately lost consciousness."

Miller and Jensen gave opening statements Monday afternoon after spending the day questioning potential jurors about what they know about brain trauma and about the case through news reports.

A panel of nine men and four women were seated. An alternate will be picked from the group at the end of the trial, before they start deliberations. Testimony begins today.

After the incident, Ensign, 32, spent weeks on life support at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, Miller said.

He remains in a rehabilitation facility in Spokane for treatment of the long-lasting effects of his brain injury, he said.

Ensign had gone to Jack Didley's with friends and co-workers after a day of work and watching the Fourth of July fireworks show. While at the bar, he reportedly caused a disturbance and was asked to leave.

Jensen said Ensign had a blood-alcohol level more than three times the legal limit to drive, was knocking over chairs for no legitimate reason, got into a VIP area that was off limits that night and took another customer's drink without permission. Ensign was making a lot of noise and "very animated," taking off his shirt and dancing with himself until Hibbard asked him to leave the club.

Ensign initially said he had no problem with leaving, using an expletive in his response, but he returned a short time later and questioned why he was kicked out, Jensen told jurors.

Security employees believed Ensign was trying to get them to fight, so they were able to talk Ensign's friends into coaxing him down the street, the lawyer said.

Hibbard, whose job involves overseeing security, and the bouncers stayed inside for 35 to 40 seconds because they didn't want to provoke the situation. But when they heard Ensign was running back to the club, Hibbard stepped outside to stop him and that's where the conflicting reports start.

Jensen said his client does not believe he had Ensign in a chokehold. When Hibbard saw Ensign's hands go up in fists near his face, his immediate reaction was to protect himself because he's previously been knocked out on the job, Jensen said.

Once he realized Ensign was unconscious on the ground, other people were calling 911 and Ensign's friends were helping him, Hibbard decided it was best not to antagonize things and backed away until Kennewick police arrived.

Miller, who didn't deny Ensign had a lot to drink that night, said jurors will see a video of still pictures taken about one second apart. The footage from outside Jack Didley's will show Hibbard with one arm around Ensign's neck and the other around his chest, and Ensign's lack of movements before Hibbard "sent Ben's head crashing down to the sidewalk."

The trial continues today at the Benton County Justice Center.

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer

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