Did Harold Fish act in self defense when he shot and killed Grant Kuenzli at a remote trailhead near Pine May 11, 2004? Or did he overreact and commit second-degree murder?
Fish's fate is now in the hands of a jury. The jurors begin deliberations today, Tuesday, at 9 a.m. in Coconino County Superior Court in Flagstaff.
Fish maintains that two dogs in Kuenzli's care rushed at him as he exited the trail. To protect himself, Fish said he pulled a 10 mm handgun and fired a warning shot to keep the dogs away. He also said Kuenzli then rushed at him, threatening death or harm.
He fatally shot Kuenzli three times in the chest. Kuenzli, according to testimony, was unarmed and Fish was not injured in the incident.
Fish was subsequently charged with second-degree murder and pleaded not guilty, claiming he acted in self defense.
The gallery in court Monday, which included Payson residents who knew Kuenzli as well as supporters of Fish, listened to the day-long closing arguments by attorneys.
Michael Lessler, deputy Coconino County attorney, told the jury the case will bring up strong emotions. Fish did kill a man when other options were available, he said, and the jury must apply reason, not emotion, in deliberations.
"Mr. Kuenzli's death was unnecessary, and it was final," Lessler said. Fish said he saw himself as a victim of the irresponsible behavior of a man who should be in control of his dogs.
The dogs did not pose a serious threat, Lessler said, because Fish said to investigators that he would have shot the dogs if they had posed a serious threat. Fish was angry, and overreacted by shooting at the dogs.
Fish's story about the events that happened that day just aren't credible, Lessler said. It would have been impossible for Fish to have had the conversation he said he had with Kuenzli -- warning him to stay away or he would shoot -- in the seconds it took for Kuenzli to get five to 10 feet away when he was shot.
Fish was evasive about his considerable knowledge of guns and gun ownership, Lessler said. And evidence shows that Fish had what looks to be approximately an hour after the shooting to collect himself and begin formulating a defense of self defense.
Lessler said Fish's story changed through time, increasing the threat he faced by a running, irrational man surrounded by two aggressive dogs with no other options.
"Mr. Fish is struggling to justify a shooting that can't be justified under the law," Lessler said. "Mr. Fish in effect ... asks you for a license to kill.
"He overreacted," Lessler said. "He went beyond what the law allows."
A. Melvin McDonald, Fish's attorney, said the case is one about character -- the character of Fish and the character of Kuenzli.
Fish is a family man, a retired school teacher, a scout leader, who has never had a blemish on the story of his life.
Kuenzli, on the other hand, has a long history of violence and aggression, which was testified to by several witnesses during the course of the trial. Kuenzli is not the victim in this case, Fish is. Kuenzli is a "casualty of his own misconduct."
McDonald characterized what happened as "terrifying" to Fish. But even so, after Fish had stopped the threat posed by Kuenzli, he helped the man he had just shot by covering him, putting a backpack under his head and running out to the highway for help.
McDonald said the community needs to be sent a message that people have a right to defend themselves against aggressive dogs and irrational attack.
"Ladies and gentlemen, give Harold Fish his name back," McDonald said. "Give him his reputation back."
See related story:
Fish loses self-defense appellate decision (June 9)