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The killing of Ernest Hoskins: a matter of intent 

In November 2012, Ernest Hoskins was shot and killed by his boss during a business meeting. With the killer now charged with manslaughter, a family's search for justice highlights the often blurry line between recklessness and murder.

"Lies remain told, forgetting what you heard. The truth is what's important, that's what your heart deserves."

— July 18, 2012, Facebook post by Ernest "Kiid" Hoskins Jr.

There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of room to squeeze the word "accidental" into the statement signed by Christopher Reynolds, 35, a few hours after he pulled a large-caliber handgun from a basket in his kitchen and then shot his 21-year-old employee, Ernest Hoskins Jr., in the head during a November 2012 business meeting. A State Police investigator wrote the statement, but Reynolds put his signature to it, swearing on penalty of perjury that it was the truth:

"On November 9, 2012, at approximately 2:00 PM, I was conducting a meeting at my house for my business. My business reduces gas mileage on vehicles. Rachel Watson, Brian Washington, Melissa Peoples and Ernest Hoskins were at my house for the meeting. All four are my employees. I was discussing with Ernest why his sales figures for the week were so low. He had lower figures than Melissa and Rachel. Ernest told me that I needed to get off my couch and work as well. We were bantering back and forth. I picked up a Desert Eagle .44 Magnum pistol from behind me. I pointed the pistol at Ernest's head, and we were bantering for approximately one minute. I pulled the trigger and the gun did not go off. I then pulled the slide back and a round went in the chamber. I tried to de-cock the hammer on the pistol by pulling the trigger and holding the hammer as it moved forward. The gun then went off and struck Ernest in the face. I put the gun back up and called 911."

A killing, with three witnesses, in which the perpetrator admitted he held a gun in the victim's face for a full minute before pulling the trigger, jacked a round into the chamber when it didn't fire, then shot the victim dead. Going solely on that statement, signed and sworn, it doesn't seem like it would take one of the great legal minds of our age to conclude the charges Reynolds might face could potentially include murder.

Why, then, was Reynolds released without charges within hours of the shooting — before, Ernest Hoskins' wife says, she had even been notified her husband was dead? Why did it take an additional 15 days before Reynolds was officially arrested and charged? Given that the special prosecutor in the case was working from the same evidence and eyewitness accounts that led State Police investigators to arrest Reynolds on one count of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault, why did Reynolds wind up formally charged on March 1 with only a single count of manslaughter, a charge that could bring him as few as three years? Does it matter that Ernest Hoskins was black, while Chris Reynolds is white? Does it matter that the shooting occurred in lily-white Lonoke County? As Hoskins' family often asks, had it been the 21-year-old black man from Little Rock who introduced a gun into a tense business meeting in Lonoke County and wound up shooting his boss in the face, would he have slept in his own bed that night, much less been charged with manslaughter?

Questions swirl. Many of them probably won't get good answers until Reynolds' trial in early June, if then. Though a nationwide groundswell of interest has taken shape through social media, with supporters saying the case smacks of racism, the special prosecutor brought in to try the case contends that the evidence proves Reynolds' recklessness, but not his intent to kill Ernest Hoskins in cold blood. Hoskins' wife and family, however, are left to wonder: Is justice being served?

A whiff of the moment

Eight months pregnant with Ernest Hoskins' son, a child she plans to name after his father, Nikki Hoskins came into the North Little Rock bookstore where we'd agreed to meet wearing her uniform from a local restaurant, her face clearly wrung out with grief.

She and Ernest — who almost everybody but Nikki and his mother called "Kiid," after his hip-hop music name, Kiid Fresh — met on Facebook when she was 20 and he was 17. Nikki knew he was too young for her, but even then he was clearly intriguing:  handsome, an artist, a poet and musician, a smart, driven young man who carried a notebook crammed with lyrics and thoughts and sketched out schemes on how to make something of himself in business or on the stage. They became close friends, but Ernest often hinted that he wanted more.

"He was always like: 'You're going to be my girlfriend,' " Nikki said. " 'You're going to be mine. I'm going to make you my wife someday.' We did that for two years, and finally got to the point where we were ready for something serious in our lives."

Raised by a single mother after his father passed away from a heart attack in 1998, Ernest seemed more ready than most young men to settle down. He and Nikki started dating in July 2011, and things progressed quickly.

"We loved each other to death within a month," she said. "Everybody was like: 'I think you're moving too fast.' But people didn't know the whole story. They didn't know he'd been in the picture the whole time. We just weren't dating." 

She'd already agreed to marry him by the time their first anniversary as a couple rolled around on July 27, 2012. They were planning a big December wedding, but the morning of their anniversary, Ernest came in and surprised her. "He said, 'Get up. Let's go get married,' " Nikki said. "I was like: Quit playing. But he said, 'Get up, let's go do this. Let's go downtown.' ... It was a whiff of the moment thing. We're going to get married right now." And so they did. Less than a month later, they found out Nikki was pregnant.

Ernest had always worked hard, taking classes at Pulaski Tech and Phoenix University after his graduation from Hall High, often juggling more than one job. He worked on his music at night, releasing hip-hop tracks on YouTube and Facebook. He was selling Direct TV systems when he met Chris Reynolds.

"Christopher came into the store where he was working," Nikki said. "[Ernest] tried to sell Chris some satellite service. I guess Chris liked his way of doing things ... he gave him a business card and said, 'You should come work for me.' "

Seeking a steady income that would allow Nikki to stay home and raise their son and the goddaughter they had adopted, Ernest went for it in September 2012, becoming a salesman for Reynolds' company, Reynell Industries in Ward.

With gas prices spiraling, Reynell Industries was trying to tap into consumers' frustration at the pump by distributing a system that supplements gasoline engines with compressed natural gas or hydrogen. In addition, Reynolds' home in Ward is listed as the headquarters for a non-profit called The Reynolds Foundation Group Inc., which claims through its website, reynoldfoundationgroup.org, to offer self-defense training, bullying-prevention programs, relationship counseling, stalking-prevention tips, and other services. Most of the links at the site are either dead ends, or prompt the user to set an appointment. Attempts to reach Christopher Reynolds were unsuccessful, and the Times was told by someone at the office of Reynolds' attorney, Hubert Alexander of Jacksonville, that Alexander generally doesn't talk to the press. A message the Times left for Alexander went unreturned.

Nikki Hoskins said her husband was excited about working for Reynolds. As Reynell Industries' first salesman, he soon oversaw the hiring of two more salespeople. Ernest thought it might be the business opportunity he'd been waiting on.

"He felt like this job could take him to where he was trying to be," she said. "He and Chris had discussed a lot of opportunities that were coming up, travel and doing sales with the company. He moved up to a management position in two weeks."

Though Reynolds invited Ernest to bring Nikki to his house for cookouts and get-togethers, Nikki said she was working two jobs at the time and never went. Ernest, on the other hand, seemed to be over there all the time. At least once, she said, Chris, Ernest and another employee went to the firing range to shoot some of the many guns Chris owned. Eventually, Nikki said, Reynolds tried to give Ernest a large caliber handgun — a gun she now believes to be the .44 semi-automatic that later killed him — but she wouldn't allow it in the house because of their adopted daughter and the baby on the way. After Ernest told Reynolds he couldn't take the gun, Nikki said Reynolds gave them a set of swords and several large daggers.

That odd bit of generosity aside, Nikki said she began to question how Ernest was being paid. "He made sales, and he was supposed to be commissioned off of them, but it seemed like every time he was supposed to receive pay from the commission, it was pushed back and he didn't get it."

Ernest's mother, Monica Hoskins, said she also thought something was strange with her son's employment. He was often broke, she said, and drove the car he'd bought the previous July without tags for months because he couldn't afford to pay the taxes, even after he started working for Reynolds. When she finally agreed to help him get the paperwork on his car in order, he came back the same week and asked for a small loan to get him by.

"I didn't feel like he was paying him right," she said. "I asked him, 'Where's all your money going, honey?' "

Monica Hoskins said that though her son started out receiving a paycheck every week, that soon switched to every two weeks. "What job pays you weekly," she said, "and all of a sudden it turns to every two weeks? How is he paying you? But you're steady telling me about all these business deals you're making?"

On the morning of Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, Ernest Hoskins showed up at his mother's house, as he often did, in the Broadmoor neighborhood near the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to eat breakfast. By that time, Monica and Nikki Hoskins had seen the strain that working for Reynell Industries was putting on Ernest, both personally and financially. A week before her husband's death, Nikki said, she found out that he was driving every morning from their home in North Little Rock to Reynolds' home in Ward to work, almost 30 miles one way, a revelation that caused some friction between them because of the amount of gas it took to make the commute. Monica Hoskins said that on Halloween night, she was driving with her son when he received a phone call from Chris Reynolds, who was "furious" because he wanted Ernest to terminate another employee. Her son was calm, professional and apologetic throughout the call, Hoskins said, never raising his voice.

After eating breakfast and waiting around for a repairman, Monica Hoskins said, Ernest went to pay a traffic ticket, then headed to Ward for his meeting. Nikki said Ernest — who usually texted her throughout the day, just so she'd know he was thinking about her — called her that afternoon, while she was on a break from her job.

"He told me, 'Well, babe, I'm about to walk into this meeting. I'll call you as soon as I get out of the meeting. I love you.' " Nikki said. "That was the last time I ever talked to him."

What your heart deserves

At almost a foot long, the Israel Military Industries Desert Eagle is one of the largest semi-automatic handguns in the world. Available in several large calibers, it's built around a gas-operated firing mechanism that bears more in common with an assault rifle than the automatic pistols most cops carry on the beat. If you've ever seen "The Matrix," you'll recognize it. The agents chasing Neo carry Desert Eagles — hand-cannons that weigh well over 5 pounds when fully loaded with fingertip-sized shells. From where Ernest Hoskins was sitting when Chris Reynolds drew down on him and pulled the trigger during their business meeting, the black eye of the barrel would have looked like an abyss.  

With the investigative file locked in the prosecutor's desk drawer and Reynolds' trial still two months away, it's hard to know exactly what happened inside Reynolds' house on Deer Run Drive in Ward just before 2 p.m. that day. It makes one appreciate how nuanced determining intent in a homicide case is — what peoples' faces looked like, body language, whether their voices were raised or calm — things that will never translate to an arrest affidavit.

Several attempts to reach witnesses Melissa Peoples (now Melissa Gov), Brian Washington and Rachel Watson were unsuccessful. Monica Hoskins said she was able to talk to witness Brian Washington several months ago. According to Hoskins, Washington told her that Reynolds and Ernest were not arguing or angry before Ernest was shot. He recalled Chris telling Ernest that his sales were low, to which Ernest replied with the line in the statement Reynolds eventually signed: "Why don't you get off the couch and help us?" After that, all Washington remembered, Hoskins said, was the concussion and flash of the gunshot, which he said knocked him out of his chair.

A fuller picture was supplied by Rachel Watson when she appeared in January with Nikki Hoskins in a video interview with thegrio.com, the NBC News website that provides coverage targeted to an African-American audience. Nikki said she and Watson have become friends since Watson reached out to her on Facebook to tell her side of the story. The Arkansas Times left several messages for Watson, but they were not returned.

In the interview with The Grio, Watson said that the day of the shooting, she was at Reynolds' house for a job interview. After she, Washington, Gov, and Hoskins arrived, the five of them went into Chris Reynolds' kitchen and sat down, then Reynolds began talking to them about their sales.

"He started going at Ernest about his sales, and how he wasn't doing very well with his sales," Watson told the interviewer. "Then they kind of argued a little bit. That's when he pulled out his gun [from] right behind him. ... It was underneath his counter in, like, a basket. I didn't see it until he pulled it out."

At first, Watson said, she thought pulling the gun might be some kind of joke. But that feeling ended when Reynolds pointed the gun at Hoskins and pulled the trigger. When it didn't go off, Watson said, "he cocked it back and pointed it straight back at his head and pulled the trigger."

Watson doesn't mention the sound, but in a kitchen, it would have been deafening. The .44-caliber bullet slammed into Ernest Hoskins' head at near point-blank range. A Crime Lab report cited in the arrest affidavit lists Hoskins' cause of death as "Injury to Cervical Spinal Cord and Right Common Carotid Artery due to Gunshot Wound of Head," but the damage done probably doesn't translate well to paper, either.

Watson said that Reynolds ran to the bathroom to get towels, and called the police almost immediately. "We all got up and started freaking out because he'd just shot him," Watson told The Grio. "The others ran outside along with Chris. He ran outside too. I stayed behind to see if I could help Ernest, to see if he was alive still. After I checked to see if he was still alive, I went outside too." Watson said that Hoskins was already dead when she checked him. Watson claimed that Reynolds told the three witnesses that they should leave before the police arrived.

While Watson said in January that she still didn't understand why the shooting happened, she said her mind has changed since the shooting when it comes to Reynolds' intent. When the police interviewed her at the scene, she said, she told them she didn't know whether Reynolds had shot Hoskins on purpose or not.

"At that time, I told them I didn't know, because I didn't understand why someone could just point a gun at someone and shoot them. So I told them I didn't know if it was on purpose or not. ... After sitting down and thinking about it, yes, I do think he did it on purpose."

Nikki Hoskins got off work just before 10 p.m. on Nov. 9, already concerned because she hadn't heard a word from her husband since that afternoon. They had a date to go to TGIFriday's in North Little Rock, and she texted Ernest, asking him where he was. A minute later, the phone rang with a strange number. She answered it, and it was a State Police investigator. The investigator asked her how quickly she could get back to her house. Thinking it might be some kind of prank, she called Ernest's phone after hanging up with the man.

"It went straight to voicemail," she said, "and that never, ever happened. ... Something just clicked and I thought: 'Go home, Nikki.' When I pulled up, I saw a car on the side of my house that looked like Ernest's car, and I thought: 'Oh, God. They play too much.' But as soon as I got to the corner where my house is, I saw the state trooper's car." The front door opened, and her sister came out, sobbing. When she got inside, an investigator laid his hand on her shoulder, then told her that Ernest had been killed by his boss, Chris Reynolds. "I instantly hit the ground," she said.

When she put herself back together enough to listen again, Nikki said, she asked the investigators where Reynolds was being held. "He said: 'Well, they had him for questioning, and then they let him go.' I said: 'Are you f-ing serious?' I didn't say f-ing. 'This man killed my husband, and he's at home asleep? Seriously? How does that work? How does that happen?' [He said] 'Well, we didn't have enough to charge him.' You just told me that you have a gun, three witnesses, and his confession and you're going to tell me that's not enough? In what world is that not enough to arrest somebody?' "

Across town, Monica Hoskins was playing cards with friends when her phone rang. She answered it, and all she could hear was Ernest's sisters' screaming in the background.

Intent

Chuck Graham, prosecuting attorney for the 23rd Judicial District — which includes Lonoke County — was originally handling the case for the state, but recused himself after his first meeting with the Hoskins family. Though Graham said he doesn't know Christopher Reynolds or his family, he said he made the decision to hand off the case to a special prosecutor after the Hoskins family raised questions about whether he could be impartial, and he began receiving calls from civil rights groups, including the NAACP.

"I just want to make sure [the Hoskins family] were totally comfortable," Graham said. "That's purely why I did it. They'd suffered a tremendous loss of a family member, and I didn't want to do anything to add to that, so I thought it would be better to have somebody else who is not from here come in and take an independent look at it." Graham said that was also part of the thinking behind the decision to call in State Police investigators. A call to the State Police investigator who ran the investigation in Ward went unreturned at press time.

Jack McQuary is the special prosecutor for the State of Arkansas, and made the decision to charge Christopher Reynolds with manslaughter, a class C felony that could land him in jail for between three and 10 years. While McQuary said ethical rules prohibit him from talking specifics prior to trial, he said his own investigation and interviews with the witnesses found that there was a reckless disregard for basic firearm safety at Reynolds' house, including Reynolds "swinging around" guns that he believed to be unloaded.

McQuary said his investigation found no motive — financial or otherwise — for Reynolds to purposely kill his employee, and said there was "absolutely no animosity whatsoever" during the Nov. 9 meeting. That led him to the conclusion that Reynolds hadn't planned to kill Hoskins, or even made the angry, split-second decision to kill.

"He didn't wake up that morning saying: 'I'm going to kill Ernest Hoskins,' " McQuary said. "He didn't even come to that conclusion while they were sitting there discussing prospects. Talking to the witnesses, I asked each one of them: 'Do you think he purposely did this?' Each one of them said no. They were just sitting there holding a conversation, and he was waving a pistol."

The crime was more than a simple accident, McQuary said, but it didn't rise to the level of murder. Deaths during actions that recklessly put peoples' lives in danger are often charged as manslaughter, and determining intent — what a killer planned to do, or thought about doing at the time of a homicide — is a crucial landmark in finding the border between manslaughter and murder.

"The Supreme Court has held that manslaughter must be more than an accident," he said. "It's recklessness. To me, this is elementary about it, but it's an accident plus incredible stupidity."

McQuary said he has handled homicide cases all over the state, but it's the ones in which the perpetrator is charged with manslaughter that always elicit the most emotion. He said that race had nothing to do with the charges that were filed, and disputes the idea that Hoskins would have been treated more harshly had the shoe been on the other foot. As for why the arresting charge was first-degree murder, while Reynolds was formally charged with manslaughter, McQuary said: "There's a big difference between probable cause and what someone is actually convicted of by being found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

McQuary said everything he's looked into has found Ernest Hoskins to be a good young man who was trying to do everything he could for his family. He said he feels for Nikki and Monica Hoskins, and said that he will try to put Reynolds away for as long as he can while assuring that — as a felon — Reynolds will never be able to legally own a firearm again.

But, McQuary said, "I've sworn an oath — and I take it very, very seriously — that my job is to ensure that justice is to be served. That doesn't mean I seek the highest penalty on every case I have. ... It's my job to look at the facts of the case and not let emotion play any role in my decision on what to charge."

The longest highway

Nikki and Monica Hoskins still don't buy McQuary's contention that the shooting was an accident. Ernest eventually got around to telling one or the other of them everything that happened to him during his day, they said, and he never told either of them about reckless gunplay at Chris Reynolds' house, much less Reynolds using a handgun to point or gesture during previous business meetings.

"I'm his wife," Nikki said. "I'm his best friend. He tells me everything whether I want him to or not. How come I never knew that? I knew everything they talked about, but I never knew they played with guns? That makes no sense." Monica Hoskins called the contention that her son would allow a gun to be pointed in his face on a regular basis "baloney." She said that when she talked to Brian Washington, he never mentioned recklessness with firearms at Reynolds' house, either.

Until Reynolds' trial, which is scheduled for June 5 and 6, they are struggling on. They've started a petition drive online to try and get more attention for the case, and have a Facebook page called "Justice for Ernest Hoskins Jr."

Both Nikki and Monica said they didn't want to see the case from a race perspective, but as the months dragged on without formal charges they began to suspect it. Nikki said she became sure of it when Reynolds was charged with manslaughter. They're represented by the prominent Florida civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who also represents the parents of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager shot by a neighborhood watch captain in Feb. 2012 Since Reynolds was charged, they haven't spoken with McQuary.

Monica Hoskins said the court dates have been hard. "When I drive that highway to go to Lonoke County," she said, "I shake all the way. I think: 'My son traveled this highway.' "

Nikki Hoskins said she hasn't had a full night's sleep since Nov. 9. Her daughter, who is 6, suffers from nightmares.

"She wakes up and says: 'Is he going to come home tonight?' " Hoskins said. "She understands what's going on, but she doesn't understand. She expects him. She thinks it's only temporary."

Talking to Nikki Hoskins, one of the first things you realize if you listen closely is that when she speaks about her husband, she doesn't use the past tense. It's as if Ernest is still out there somewhere, waiting to come home to her. When I pointed that out to her, Nikki Hoskins smiled a sad smile, then said that, in her mind, that's the way she feels. She can't convince herself that he is gone.

"In my heart, in my soul, I can't admit to it," she said. "That's why everything is so hard for me: I can't admit to it yet. This was the love of my life. We had just gotten married. We were getting ready for the wedding. We had our dance all planned out. I'm not ready to say: 'He was.' I have to say: 'He is.' "

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