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No charges filed in Virginia altercation that left man dead

A medical examiner determined that Ryan Moats, 41, died from heart failure, and prosecutors said they can't prove that James Edwards, 32, inflicted fatal injuries.

St. Louis County Courthouse in Virginia
St. Louis County Courthouse in Virginia
2015 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The St. Louis County Attorney's Office will not file criminal charges against a man who was involved in a fatal altercation in Virginia last summer.

James Marice Edwards, 32, was initially arrested for fifth-degree assault charge and then held several days on a preliminary manslaughter charge. But Edwards was released from jail days later as authorities continued to investigate the circumstances of the incident.

In declining charges Thursday, County Attorney Kim Maki said a medical examiner determined Moats' heart failed due to the "combined effects of methamphetamine and the physiological stressors of the altercation," along with a preexisting blocked artery.

Maki said there was determined to be no "reasonable likelihood of conviction," as both men were physically involved in the altercation and it would be impossible to prove that Edwards' actions were a "substantial causal factor in Mr. Moats' death."

The 41-year-old man who died has been identified as Ryan Douglas Moats, of Virginia.

"We first want to express our condolences again to the Moats family," Maki said in a statement. "We are very sorry for the loss of their loved one. Second, want want to thank the Virginia Police Department and other contributing law enforcement agencies for the good work they did on this case.

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"While the investigation conduced was thorough, the facts create a significant hurdle of evidence that introduce reasonable doubt. As ministers of justice, we bring charges only in those cases that are supported by evidence we believe to be sufficient to obtain a conviction."

But family representatives disagreed with the office's findings, telling the News Tribune they will be bringing forward police reports, interviews, a 911 call transcript and the medical examiner's report to show the public why they believe charges were warranted.

"It's very misleading," said Moats' sister, Bryana Salo. "Ryan is being slandered, and there's proof of that. The details are very inaccurate."

According to the report from Maki's office:

The two men were involved in a verbal argument that turned physical outside public housing complex. They "wrestled and punched at each other" as a bystander used a stun gun in an attempt to separate them.

Moats, having achieved the upper hand, stated that he was having a heart attack and retreated to his truck as bystanders called 911. Edwards followed, punching the closed door and ripping the handle off. He walked away before approaching again, opening the door and having an "interaction" with Moats.

"The specific nature and severity of the interaction, if any, is unclear," the report said. "Mr. Moats did not reengage with Mr. Edwards at the truck. Eventually, Mr. Edwards left the area."

Paramedics, who arrived just five minutes after the 911 call, found Moats unresponsive and were unable to revive him.

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The Midwest Medical Examiner's Office formally ruled it a homicide, but indicated the "physical injuries sustained by Mr. Moats during his encounter with Mr. Edwards were not life-threatening." An autopsy showed that he had a 60%-70% blocked artery, which combined with the drug use and stress to cause a heart failure.

Maki said that because the men were "mutually engaging in the first confrontation, it would be considered a brawl under Minnesota law" and Edwards could not be liable for culpable negligence. And, with a lack of clarity about the second confrontation, the county attorney said the medical examiner "cannot say that what happened at the truck changed the trajectory of the already ongoing medical event involving Mr. Moats' heart."

"In light of the foregoing, the county attorney's office has determined that it cannot, in good conscience and in compliance with the ethical obligations by which prosecutors are bound, file a manslaughter charge in this matter," the news release said.

The office considered charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter. The review was first handled by Bonnie Norlander, head of the Iron Range criminal division, before Duluth prosecutor Vicky Wanta conduced a second, independent analysis. Their conclusions were reviewed and affirmed by Nate Stumme, head of the Duluth criminal criminal division.

This story was updated at 10:04 a.m. Jan. 21 to include a comment from Moats' family and again at 4:20 p.m. Jan. 27 to clarify the circumstances of the fight. It was originally posted at 6:07 p.m. Jan. 20.

READ MORE BY TOM OLSEN
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Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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