Stephens murder case will move to trial

A May 19 trial date remains in place for a Marietta man accused of murder, after a hearing on several motions in the case Friday in Washington County Common Pleas Court.

At the hearing, Judge Ed Lane approved the admission of new witness testimony for the prosecution and the results of a clinical evaluation.

Ira D. Blair, 29, of 139 Groves. Ave., has undergone a psych evaluation with a psychologist with the Forensic Diagnostic Center of District 9. Blair was indicted for murder following the April 2 discovery of the body of 69-year-old Frank B. Stephens, in the trailer where Blair had been living at the time.

After reviewing two witnesses-a hand-to-hand combat expert who will testify at trial on how Blair received the injuries he sustained at the time of the incident and the district psychologist’s findings-Lane approved both testimonies to move to trial.

Blair had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity in January, delaying his trial until May.

Washington County Assistant Prosecutor Kevin Rings had asked Joe Bigley, who is trained in mixed martial arts and contracts with several military branches, to testify that the injuries Blair sustained came as a result of throwing his own punches.

Bigley is also an instructor for the Everyday Warrior Academy in Marietta.

“It’s a matter of an object hitting a moving object that can result in injury,” Bigley said. “Even with professional training, if you’re hitting someone that is moving and you glance off the sides of bones, you can get sprains and bruises.”

Lane looked over photographs taken of Blair’s hands, with bruising along the sides and backs of his hands that Bigley said are typically consistent with injuries you can receive when throwing punches.

Bigley trains Navy Seals as well as Marines and Army soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, and claimed to have seen many of these kinds of injuries before.

“The only way to bruise the side of your thumb like that is to throw an arching punch,” he said. “In my opinion these injuries are normal, everyday striking injuries.”

Bigley also noted that as an experienced bouncer, he has found that when alcohol is involved, injuries from fighting become more likely.

“Alcohol eliminates motor skills,” he said. “To a degree, throwing punches while impaired means they will be wider, and you have less control.”

Defense attorney Rolf Baumgartel argued that though he believed the testimony was relevant, he did not find that Bigley met the requirements of an expert witness.

“His testimony is entirely anecdotal,” he said. “How can someone with no formal medical expertise make these claims?”

Rings argued that despite a lack of the certification that a physician might have, Bigley was still qualified to testify.

“The witness is qualified by knowledge, skill and experience, and those are the first three requirements listed (for an expert witness),” he said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more qualified.”

Lane agreed for the most part with Rings, but because of legal rules regarding expert witnesses, agreed to allow the testimony at trial with the stipulation that Bigley be presented as a layperson witness.

“He has dedicated his profession to this area of defense, and I think it is helpful testimony,” Lane said.

Rings will use Bigley’s testimony at trial to try to prove that the injuries Blair sustained were because he himself was throwing punches.

Evidence has been presented indicating it is possible that Blair may have been hit over the head at the time of the murder, resulting in the possibility for an insanity plea to be valid.

Forensic Diagnostic Center clinic psychologist Dr. Denise Kohler testified Friday that after evaluating Blair, reviewing his medical records and speaking with Marietta police, she did not find any indication of brain damage.

“There was no presence of a concussion, only some lacerations that would not have had that effect,” she said.

Kohler’s testimony will only apply to the second incident in Blair’s case, which is when police found him bleeding at a second residence that had been broken into the same day Stephens’ body was found.

Baumgartel inquired as to whether a blow to the head could affect decision-making abilities.

“It depends, if it’s just a facial area it would not affected anything,” Kohler said. “But the injury he showed me was near the eye, and I don’t think it would have done anything.”

Kohler said she was told by the defendant that he had a concussion, to which she gave him the benefit of the doubt.

“Whether he had one or not, it did not render him psychotic,” she said.

Lane made the decision that after hearing from both Bigley and Kohler, that their testimonies would both be allowed, and that the trial was ready to go for May 19.

The jury will have to make the decision whether they agree with the insanity plea or not, he said.