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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.
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."