WOODLAND — Within days of first meeting in the fall of 2011, Kevin Seery and James Elron Mings spent hours in conversation, delving into subjects ranging from science fiction to telepathy to the mysteries of metaphysics.
“We seemed to have more in common than I had experienced with anybody before,” Mings recalled. “I thought I’d found a rare gem of a friend, someone I could truly relate to.”
One night, however, the men’s talks ventured into darker matters, such as Seery’s unbearable pain from diabetes and other ailments, and — after looking through a box of family photos in the bedroom of Seery’s J Street apartment — his doubts that he’d ever have a family of his own.
It was at that point, during the predawn hours of Oct. 1, 2011, that Seery “stood up and asked if I would kill him,” Mings, 38, said on the witness stand this week in Yolo Superior Court. “He said the cleanest way to do it would be to choke him.”
“I put my arm around the front of his neck … and I choked him,” Mings testified, shaking and weeping at the memory. He said he continued squeezing his friend’s neck until both men fell to the bedroom floor, then stuffed several pieces of gauze into his mouth as Seery had instructed.
“At that point did you believe you killed Kevin Seery?” Mings’ attorney, Deputy Public Defender Dan Hutchinson asked.
“Yes, I did,” Mings replied.
But Hutchinson has claimed it was a third man who was in Seery’s apartment, Tom McDermott, who fatally gagged an unconscious but alive Seery with a sock piece and antibacterial wipes after Mings had left the room. Hutchinson also contends that McDermott and Seery conspired to “provoke” Mings into what he believed to be an act of compassion, then let him take the fall for it.
Mings took the stand in his own defense over a two-day period, hoping to convince a Yolo County jury that he is guilty only of attempted voluntary manslaughter, not the murder count he’s charged with.
Jurors are slated to receive the case Friday after attorneys conclude their closing arguments.
Although he initially subpoenaed McDermott to testify, Hutchinson later opted not to call him as a witness, saying in court he “cannot fathom a situation” in which McDermott wouldn’t assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
So that left Mings to do all the talking.
He began by describing the events that brought him to Yolo County — a failed marriage, followed by a 1,000-mile walk from Albuquerque, N.M., to Woodland in an unsuccessful bid to rekindle a long-lost love.
Homeless and dejected, Mings made his way to Davis, where he worked at the Davis Food Co-op and received transitional housing at Davis Community Meals before quirky behavior cost him both opportunities.
It was his former shelter bunkmate, McDermott, who “offered to take me under his wing,” eventually introducing him to Seery and inviting him to his apartment, Mings testified.
He recalled that McDermott was in the apartment bedroom with the two other men that October morning, but walked out shortly before Seery broached the subject of assisted suicide. Seery told Mings he’d asked others to take his life, but all had turned him down.
“If you’re going to do it, now’s the time, before Tom changes his mind,” Seery said, according to Mings — his first indication that McDermott had any involvement in the plan. When he left the bedroom, McDermott was sitting in the living room, wearing earphones, the television volume turned up high.
“It’s done,” Mings said he told McDermott, who responded with a grin. Moments later, Mings said, McDermott got up and went into Seery’s bedroom, emerging after a couple of minutes.
Although Mings believed McDermott was aware of what had occurred, the man “feigned ignorance” the next morning, attempting to wake Seery and instructing Mings to check for vital signs. McDermott then called Seery’s mother and told Mings to call 911.
After being questioned by Davis police, both men left the scene to report Seery’s death to some acquaintances at Community Park. But Mings said McDermott sent him away, saying he didn’t want him around when he broke the news to Seery’s friends.
Mings said he felt “betrayed” — particularly later that day when he learned that word of Seery’s death had spread like wildfire through Davis’ homeless community, along with Mings’ alleged role.
High on marijuana given to him by a friend, “I decided it would be best if I went to the Davis Police Department and told them what I knew,” Mings said. “I honestly … didn’t think there would be any consequences for what I had done.”
Mings was arrested, jailed and charged with murder. It was during his second or third meeting with his attorney that he realized “something was very not right,” he said.
Hutchinson had asked him about a sock and disposable towelettes pulled from deep within Seery’s throat during his autopsy, both of which “I had no knowledge about,” Mings testified. He said he later learned that McDermott had mentioned the sock to someone before the autopsy had even occurred.
“I believe I was set up,” Mings told the jury.
“Do you still believe that Kevin Seery was a friend of yours?” Hutchinson asked.
“No, I don’t think he was,” Mings replied.
In her cross-examination, Deputy District Attorney Martha Holzapfel noted a comparison Mings once made between himself and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the controversial physician who performed assisted suicides in the 1990s, and questioned whether Mings’ knowledge of Kevorkian had alerted him to the consequences of such acts.
But Mings said while he knew what Kevorkian had done and that some people disagreed with his actions, he was unaware that he had been tried and convicted of second-degree murder.
Holzapfel also asked why Mings made no mention of McDermott entering Seery’s bedroom during his initial confession or in multiple interviews with lead Detective James MacNiven in the days after his arrest.
“At the time I didn’t think it was relevant,” Mings replied. He said he also felt as though he was “protecting” McDermott, who, unlike Mings, had a criminal past.
“I knew that he’d been in trouble with the law before, and I didn’t realize he’d had as much involvement as he did,” he added. Mings acknowledged, however, that he never saw McDermott put anything into Seery’s mouth.
— Reach Lauren Keene at [email protected] or 530-747-8048. Follow her on Twitter at @laurenkeene