Bentonville firefighter plans to appeal battery conviction, lawyer says
A Bentonville firefighter who was found guilty on Friday of third-degree battery following an allegedly racially motivated altercation with a local Asian man outside Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in March plans to appeal the verdict and sentence, his attorney said Tuesday.
Benjamin Snodgrass, 45, who later resigned from his position as captain in the Bentonville Fire Department, was charged with misdemeanor counts of third-degree battery and public intoxication stemming from the March 13 incident involving Liem Nguyen, 35, of Hot Springs, during which Snodgrass reportedly made racist remarks and threats to him.
After hearing one day of testimony on Sept. 10 and taking the matter under advisement, Garland County District Court Judge Joe Graham found Snodgrass guilty of both counts on Friday, sentencing him to one year in jail with all but 60 days suspended on the battery count and 30 days in jail on the public intoxication charge, to run concurrently.
“We’re appealing the verdicts of guilty and the 60-day jail sentence and demanding a jury trial,” Brent Miller, attorney for Snodgrass, told The Sentinel-Record on Tuesday.
“We felt that this was a clear acquittal for Mr. Snodgrass, on both charges, but the court saw it differently,” Miller said.
“The great thing about the U.S. Constitution and the rights afforded to defendants facing charges, is the right to a jury trial to have 12 citizens of Garland County consider all the evidence put forth and come to not guilty verdicts ultimately.”
Reached for comment Tuesday, Nguyen told The Sentinel-Record, “In my opinion, I think the sentence was too light, but I’m glad the verdict was guilty.”
Nguyen noted, “I think they are going to appeal the verdict so there might be more to come.”
Asked if he thought the verdict might send a message to others, Nguyen said, “Yes, but for battery, not for a hate crime because Arkansas doesn’t have one at the time the situation happened.”
In a closing brief filed Sept. 24, Miller presented the defenses of involuntary intoxication on Snodgrass’ part and the fact “he did not batter Mr. Nguyen,” noting that if proven the involuntary intoxication element would make the battery charge moot.
“Mr. Snodgrass would not be responsible for any act that might have constituted a crime because he lacked the mental capacity at that time to do so. As a result, the Court need not even make a finding regarding the battery allegations, as those were moot from the outset based upon the drugged state of Mr. Snodgrass,” Miller wrote.
Snodgrass has previously claimed he was “not in his right mind” at the time of the incident and told responding Hot Springs police that night about “gases being pumped into the casino.” Miller had stipulated Snodgrass had tested positive for the presence of MDMA with the potential side effect of “illogical or disorganized thoughts” and “mild detachment from oneself.” He had also argued they believe someone slipped the MDMA to Snodgrass without his knowledge.
In the brief, Miller wrote that the evidence and testimony “paint the picture of a fun, responsible, drug-free fire captain who was
dosed unknowingly, not a drug abuser, nor excessive drinker who would ever be in that type of situation but for the mickey he was slipped, whether intended for him or another mark.”
At the trial, Nguyen had testified he was outside Oaklawn waiting on an Uber when he encountered Snodgrass, who was sitting on a curb nearby, and Snodgrass began commenting, “Do you know you’re in America?”
Nguyen said Snodgrass kept coming toward him, prompting him to seek help from an employee, Mickey Davis, and Snodgrass walked away at one point. Then Snodgrass allegedly came at Nguyen again, threatening him, and kept pushing him until Nguyen responded by punching him to get him away.
Both men fell to the ground during the struggle and both sustained minor injuries as a result of the altercation.
Miller told the newspaper Graham had indicated while issuing his ruling the battery charge was “based on Snodgrass recklessly causing physical injury and he didn’t believe Ben’s actions were intentional.”
Miller said Snodgrass is “a 20-year firefighter with no criminal history. He has a wife and three kids. He runs a charitable laundry for the less fortunate.”
In his closing brief, Deputy Prosecutor Andrew Middlebrooks argued the battery charge was “established beyond a reasonable doubt” after Nguyen’s testimony that Snodgrass “confronted him, unprovoked, yelling that Mr. Nguyen ‘did not belong in this country” which was corroborated by Davis’ testimony.
“Even if (Snodgrass) was not acting purposefully, he certainly acted recklessly. (He) testified that he consumed 10 alcoholic beverages. All the witnesses agree (Snodgrass) was intoxicated, although (he) contests whether that intoxication was willful. (His) alcohol consumption, coupled with his statements to Mr. Nguyen, and his actions in grabbing Mr. Nguyen and pulling him to the ground recklessly caused physical injury to Mr. Nguyen,” Middlebrooks wrote.
Snodgrass failed to sufficiently prove the defense of involuntary intoxication, Middlebrooks wrote, arguing “at least to some degree (his) intoxication was clearly self-induced.” He argued that even if Snodgrass involuntarily consumed MDMA, which the state was not conceding, it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” to determine which intoxicant caused him “to be unable to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law.”