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The Buffalo News (New York)

Video surveillance from Ralph Wilson Stadium that showed Robert Hopkins sliding down a rail and climbing back up to his seat five times before falling from the upper deck and injuring another fan was the key to his conviction Tuesday, prosecutors said.

"The video speaks for itself," Assistant District Attorney Michael Drmacich said, "and I think that the jury came to the same conclusion. ... It's great to have video evidence of a crime taking place. It makes it a lot easier as a prosecutor."

The footage from the Nov. 17 Bills-New York Jets game revealed that between the first and second quarter, Hopkins, 29 of Buffalo slid partway down the metal railing on the edge of Section 339 and climbed back up to his seat multiple times before falling backward on his fifth slide. He tumbled 20 to 25 feet and landed on Mark Bratcher, 29, in the 200 level below.

After a four-day trial and 24 minutes of deliberations, the six-member Orchard Park Town Court jury Tuesday convicted Robert Hopkins of second-degree reckless endangerment and third-degree assault, both misdemeanors. He could face up to a year in jail on each count. Sentencing is scheduled for 4 p.m. Sept. 11.

Hopkins sat calmly in his chair and showed no visible reaction when the verdict was announced. He declined comment while leaving the courtroom.

After the incident, Hopkins lost his job as a digital art director with Eric Mower + Associates and was banned from the stadium.

"We're obviously disappointed with the verdict," defense attorney Patrick J. Brown said. He said he is unsure whether his client will appeal.

"It was an accident," Brown said. "It was something that he should not have done, obviously, but at the time, he was doing it, he just didn't perceive the risk."

During summations, Brown stated, "Every accident isn't a crime. ... The fact that it was done repetitively reinforces the lack of risk.

"He did something incredibly stupid, something he deeply regrets."

Drmacich was outraged at the incident being called an accident.

"Accident? Accident?" he asked before the jury. "This wasn't an accident. ... This was Russian roulette with his own safety and others'. ... Like Russian roulette, just because he didn't fall the first four times doesn't mean it wasn't gonna happen on the fifth time. ... All of us can see how risky this was ... anyone apparently but the defendant and his sister.

"It was so reckless that it was outrageous."

After Orchard Park Town Justice Edward A. Pace denied Brown's motion for the charges against his client to be dismissed earlier Tuesday, the defense called Hopkins and his sister, Stephanie, to the stand.

Hopkins testified that he slid on the railing five times before losing his balance and knew there were fans seated in the level below. He said he didn't think what he did was a criminal act.

Hopkins was asked why he slid on the railing.

"I really don't know that I have a reason. Just horsing around and not thinking," he said.

"I really didn't think anything was going to happen or go wrong. ... I did not think that I was going to fall."

Last week, Brian Doyle, a retired sheriff's deputy working on a part-time basis at the stadium the day of the incident, testified that he spoke with Hopkins soon after the fall.

Doyle had heard that Hopkins slid down the railing, and asked him if the rumor was true.

"It's true," Hopkins replied, according to Doyle. "I didn't mean to."

When the deputy turned to walk away, Hopkins added, "The funny part is, I did it like nine times."

Hopkins also produced a brief written statement.

"I was intoxicated and lost my grip ... I didn't mean to ... I'm so, so sorry. I'm lucky I'm OK," the statement read.

Hopkins said Tuesday that after further consideration, he didn't believe he was intoxicated at the time of the fall because he had had only two or three drinks before and during the game.

Hopkins also said that he is aware that Bratcher has a pending civil lawsuit.

Stephanie Hopkins, 25, testified that she and her brother attended the game with three friends. They found some empty seats in Section 339 and sat there because not all of the seats they had purchased were in the same section. She said she saw her brother slide down a metal railing on the edge of the upper deck and told him to stop because she feared that attention would be drawn to their group and they would have to separate.

Hopkins and his sister testified that they didn't hear other fans telling him to stop sliding.

The prosecution's final witness was Bratcher's neurosurgeon, Dr. Loubert Steven Suddaby.

In his testimony, he described Bratcher's injuries and his five visits with him. Suddaby said MRIs indicated that Bratcher had bulging discs in two places in his cervical spine and a disc herniation in his thoracic, or middle, spine.

Suddaby also said Bratcher's injuries could have been worse had the force of the impact been on the back of his head.

"Had it been about two inches forward ... there's a chance of either quadriplegia or death with that injury," he said.

email: scampbell@buffnews.com

June 18, 2014

 
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