By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Two Sea Bright firefighters accused of roughing up a fellow volunteer last year were provoked by insults hurled by the victim, who said one of the assailants should have been killed in Iraq, their defense attorney said Thursday.
In a drawn-out day of testimony at Little Silver municipal court, the two sides offered conflicting accounts of what started the scuffle, which sent 28-year-old firefighter Justin Hughes to the hospital.
And although it was the second day of testimony, this time a marathon five hours’ worth continued from May 5, the presiding judge reserved decision on the case.
First to take the stand Thursday was Hughes, who suffered a shoulder injury after he was shoved to the ground and strangled the night of the fire department’s wet-down party last October, celebrating the acquisition of a new fire truck.
In Hughes’s recollection, he was sitting at the department’s bar talking to a former neighbor and overheard Steven Lang, 25, talking about installing a depth finder on the department’s recently acquired fire boat. Hughes said something he admitted in a police report not being able to remember, and then Steven Lang approached Hughes and shoved him. The shoving match was broken up by Lang’s 33-year-old brother, Peter Lang IV, Hughes said.
Hughes, who was on the stand for more than an hour being asked by the Langs’s attorney William Wilson where he went to school, when he graduated and if he owned a motorcycle questions prosecutor Mike Halfacre said had zero relevance said he told Steven Lang that, if he wanted, they could refill their beers and go outside to talk about whatever problem was going on.
Lang declined, he said. When Hughes walked over to a beer keg, he testified, Peter Lang approached him and said something to the effect of, “if you have a problem with my brother, then you have a problem with me,” and also said something about Hughes having a problem with the Marine Corps. Steven Lang is a veteran Marine and served in Iraq.
After a brief yelling match, Hughes said, “I was then grabbed by my neck” by Peter Lang, and “he proceeded to choke me out until I could not breathe.”
“He stated, ‘have you had enough or do you need me to put you to sleep?'” Hughes said.
The altercation was captured on a department video camera. In his own testimony, Peter Lang admitted shoving Hughes to the ground and choking him. When asked whether he also kicked Hughes while he was down, Lang said he did, sort of.
“Yes, technically it’s a kick,” Lang said. “It’s more of a push, but yes.”
But the Lang brothers said they attacked Hughes for comments he made toward Steven Lang.
They testified that the first altercation between Steven Lang and Hughes stemmed from Hughes making “inflammatory” comments about Lang installing the depth finder on the boat, and that he called Lang a “p***y Marine,” which Hughes denied.
Peter Lang said he was enraged by Hughes’s comments that led to the second incident, when he and his brother took Hughes to the floor.
According to Lang, Hughes, in addition to calling Steven Lang a “d**k, said, “come on, we both know we would have been better off if (Steven Lang) died in Iraq.”
“I couldn’t believe anybody could say that,” Lang said.
Halfacre, who is also Fair Haven’s mayor, argued that even though the bar was full of people that night, nobody but the Langs heard Hughes make the alleged remarks, insinuating that the Langs were piecing together a flimsy defense to an egregious assault. In previous testimony, witnesses said they did not hear any words exchanged among Hughes and the Langs.
But Wilson, the Lang’s lawyer, argued that Hughes did make the comments, which he said would enrage most people and trigger a fight, he said.
“If somebody said my brother should have died in Vietnam, I would have been at them with a chair,” Wilson said. “If someone says a person should die in Iraq, serving this country I can’t think of anything worse.”
Hughes denied making any comments like that, and said war veterans, including Steven Lang, are heroes in his mind.
His attorney, Mark Hughes (no relation to Justin), after establishing that his client and the Langs had once been friends, argued that it was highly unlikely that Hughes made a comment that Lang should have died in Iraq or “was a cat of some nature.”
“Words do not justify assault and battery,” he said.
During the testimony, the three men were shown still photographs from the video so they could walk the attorneys through the events.
The Langs are charged with simple assault, and Hughes faces a disorderly person and harrassment summons issued on a complaint by Steven Lang.
In Halfacre’s closing remarks, he said the decision for the judge, James Berube Jr., should be simple.
“Despite the best efforts of lawyers, pictures are still worth a thousand words,” he said. “And a video is worth 100,000 words that were spilled out over two days and almost eight hours of testimony. They’re guilty.”
But Wilson said the pictures and the video without words, are “worth nothing.”
“This thing never should have happened. Everybody knows that,” Wilson said. “I think alcohol played a part in this, and bad judgment definitely played a part in this.”
Berube said he will deliver a written decision soon. The Langs each have been suspended from taking line officer positions within the department until the case is settled. When redbankgreen obtains Berube’s decision, we will provide an update.