After deliberating for nearly two full days, a jury convicted a retired Valley teacher of second-degree murder in connection with the May 11, 2004 shooting death of a homeless man at a remote county trailhead.
Harold Fish, 59, a father of seven, was taken into custody after the Coconino County Superior Court jury rendered its verdict. He now faces the possibility of 10 to 22 years in prison.
As the verdict was read in Coconino County Superior Court, Fish's countenance did not change, but two of the jurors began to cry, looking over to Fish as the prosecution argued to have Fish immediately taken into custody.
"Our position from the beginning was a jury needed to decide," said Michael Lessler, lead prosecutor for the Coconino County Attorney's Office. "We agree with (the jury's) conclusion .... They've spoken."
Lessler continued, "This is not happy for any one of us from the county attorney's office. Harold Fish engaged in conduct that particular day the law just cannot accept."
Lessler lauded the jury for having the courage to apply the law to the evidence, and not base their decision on emotion.
"Whatever we might think about a person's ... character, there are certain behaviors we can't accept," Lessler said. "This community has demonstrated itself as extraordinary through the jurors."
A. Melvin McDonald, one of Fish's attorneys, said, "This is the biggest miscarriage of justice I've ever seen."
Fish maintained at trial that two dogs in the care of Grant Kuenzli 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 shot Kuenzli three times in the chest. Two of the wounds were fatal. Kuenzli was unarmed and Fish was not injured in the incident.
The prosecution argued that Fish overreacted and took a man's life when other options were available. Self defense was not justified.
Lessler argued that state law required a person convicted of murder be taken into custody.
McDonald said in response, "I ask the court to allow him to return to his home tonight."
Judge Mark Moran agreed that state law mandated Fish be taken into custody. Before he was led off, uncuffed, by two detectives from the Coconino County Sheriff's Office, Fish gave his attorneys his wallet, keys and jewelry.
"Obviously, there will be a vigorous appeal," McDonald said, adding that he's confident the jury's verdict will be overturned.
The reasons, said McDonald, centered on the fact that the jury was not allowed to hear volumes of pertinent evidence -- like Kuenzli's history of violence and aggression and the fact that he was armed with a screwdriver at the time of the shooting, among other evidence.
"The system broke today," McDonald said. "It's a tragic, tragic day in the system of justice."
Bruce Griffen, another attorney for Fish, said, "From our perspective, the case is not over, it's just extended."
The first order of business for the defense will be to talk to the jurors in order to understand how they came to the conclusion they did.
"I don't know that they know they sentenced him (Fish) to a double-digit prison term," Griffen said.
Fish's family was notified of the verdict by telephone Wednesday afternoon, Griffen said.
Fish's sentencing date will be announced Monday.
According to state law, a person convicted of second-degree murder faces a minimum prison sentence of 10 years, a standard prison sentence of 16 years and a maximum prison sentence of 22 years.
Lessler said that the county attorney has not decided on what length of prison sentence the prosecution will be seeking.
"It's an unusual case," Lessler said.
-- Larry Hendrickscan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (928) 556-2262.
See related story:
Trail shooting verdict in jury hands (June 13)