SALEM — A Salem Superior Court jury on Monday cleared a homeless man who had been charged with putting a younger homeless man into a coma last September. 

Bennie Lee Elmore's attorney had acknowledged to jurors that his client punched 33-year-old Craig Richards, on Salem's Riley Plaza, but argued that Elmore had acted in self-defense — something Elmore told police following his arrest. 

A prosecutor, meanwhile, argued that there's no evidence of self-defense other than Elmore's own statement to police — and that "this case is about anger, not about fear." 

Richards' head struck a curb in Riley Plaza as he fell to the ground after the blow from Elmore, causing a skull fracture and brain injury, in the early morning hours of Sept. 13.

His mother said Monday that Richards spent nearly a week in a coma at Massachusetts General Hospital, then months in a rehabilitation hospital, where he had to learn to eat and walk again. He was discharged in May. 

"Did I kill him?" Elmore, 46, asked Salem police Detective Richard Cunningham and state police Detective Brendan Carnes in a recorded interview played for jurors on Monday morning. 

After Carnes told Elmore he wasn't sure at that point, Elmore grew emotional. "It was self-defense, I swear," he told the investigators. He went on to insist that Richards came up behind him, then "sucker punched" him in the mouth.

"I swear to God, I was sucker punched," Elmore said again. "I didn't even think, I just turned around and I swung." 

Elmore's lawyer, John Morris, suggested to jurors that Richards was "getting even" with Elmore after a prior incident in which Elmore punched Richards a week earlier during an argument outside Wendy's on Lafayette Street.

"Craig Richards saw his opportunity for vengeance," Morris told the jury. 

Morris suggested Elmore offered a consistent account to police, unlike an eyewitness, who, Morris suggested, could not have seen all of the things he claimed because he couldn't locate where he was standing at the time on photos of Riley Plaza, where incident occurred. 

But prosecutor Erin Bellavia said Elmore, in his interview with police, corroborated the witness statement — with a key exception: the witness never saw Richards striking Elmore. 

"He's able to see all the things the defendant admits to except the one thing that helps the defendant," Bellavia told jurors. 

Bellavia also questioned the logistics described by Elmore. "Ask yourselves how someone gets punched in the mouth from behind," she told the jury. 

As for Elmore's emotional statement, Bellavia suggested that was a ploy for sympathy from the investigators. 

The jury was not told about Elmore's 21-page prior record, which includes prior assaults, or about a series of Facebook posts he had made on Sept. 6, in which he appeared to refer to other assaults on homeless people. 

They deliberated over lunch and returned their verdict a little more than an hour after they had been given the case by Judge James Lang. 

"This guy almost killed my son and I didn't get any justice," said Ann Richards, the mother of the victim, who burst into tears after the verdict Monday. 

She says her son, a Navy veteran who has struggled with alcohol dependency for years, is a "timid" person who, she believes, would be unlikely to start something. "He didn't have a mean bone in his body," Ann Richards said. 

While he was found not guilty on the assault charge, Elmore was not immediately released from custody at Middleton Jail, where he was charged in March with possessing a class B drug. He was being held on bail in that case.  

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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