Coconino County Superior Court Judge Mark Moran has ruled that shooting victim Grant Kuenzli's reputation for aggression may be admitted into evidence but a so-called "psychiatric autopsy" and his mental health records cannot be.
Moran's ruling, which he considered for almost two months, was handed down Feb. 8 in Flagstaff.
The trial of 58-year-old Harold Fish, the man charged with second-degree murder in the death of Kuenzli, was scheduled for Feb. 28, but will be postponed for at least an additional 30 days.
In making the ruling on the admissibility of certain evidence, Moran wrote that the victim's reputation for violence is relevant because it could help decide who was the initial aggressor in the May 11, 2004 deadly trailside confrontation between Kuenzli and Fish.
Judge Moran reasoned the evidence could also corroborate the defendant's perceptions of the danger he faced that day.
Moran also ruled defense attorney Mel McDonald may offer "testimony by a witness to the effect that the witness has heard others speak about the victim's character and ... as a violent person."
But, he also said "specific acts of the decedents' aggression or violence are not admissible," meaning definitive acts of bizarre behavior by Kuenzli are excluded from the upcoming trial but his stature in the town or opinions about him can be used to prove Fish acted in self-defense.
Fish has pleaded innocent and maintains the shooting was in self-defense after three dogs Kuenzli was caring for rushed him as he wrapped up a hike at the Pine Canyon Trailhead north of Pine near the Beeline Highway.
Moran also granted prosecutor Mike Lessler's motion to not allow Dr. Steven Pitt's psychiatric autopsy or the victim's mental health records into evidence.
In excluding both, the judge wrote, either "could lead to confusion of the issues and undue delay in the proceedings."
McDonald had argued that Kuenzli had a history of being mentally unstable and his health records would prove that in court.
The Payson Roundup has copies of the health records, and they do show he checked himself into Southwest Behavioral Health Services Feb. 9, 2004, marking depression, anxiety and suicidal/ homicidal thoughts as reasons.
Moran will also allow evidence concerning Fish's ownership and knowledge of firearms and ammunition into evidence.
McDonald had asked they be excluded.
In denying McDonald's motion, the judge wrote, "the evidence is relevant but the court will limit this issue to a period not to exceed three years prior to the incident."
Moran ruled evidence that Fish had received karate training decades ago was not admissible.
Fish was armed with a handgun during the deadly confrontation at the trailhead.
He told investigators he fired two warning shots at Kuenzli's three dogs to try to disperse them before shooting the victim three times at almost point blank range.
Some had questioned why Fish didn't use his martial arts training to fend off an attack by Kuenzli rather than shooting him.
Fish has argued he remembers little of the karate lessons he received and the remnants of any skills he might have had would have been useless.
Moran denied McDonald's motion for the right to have the final closing argument.
In traditional criminal proceedings, the state has the final closing argument.
McDonald said Moran's ruling was a mix of good and bad for the defendant.
"We're obviously disappointed because we think the jury should hear all the evidence."
Moran's rulings cap an almost two-year debate between McDonald and Lessler on whether the victim's history was relevant to the case.
McDonald has said Kuenzli's violent history is proof he did exactly what the defendant claims.
Lessler has countered by arguing it is not the victim who is on trial and the jury should be allowed to focus on the events of the day Fish shot Kuenzli to death rather than mental health records and "the opinions of a $300-an-hour psychiatrist."
Moran's rulings, however, won't be the last.
Before the trial, McDonald said, at least a dozen more motions will be argued.