A retired schoolteacher convicted of second-degree murder after shooting a Payson man during a trailside confrontation five years ago was released from prison around noon Tuesday, July 21.
Just outside Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis near Buckeye, Harold Fish, 62, was greeted by hugs from his wife and six of their seven children.
Fish was freed after Coconino County Superior Court Judge Mark Moran, also the trial judge in the murder case, signed a release order earlier that morning.
Fish spent Thursday catching up on the chores he could not do while incarcerated.
“My wife had to drive me to get a license; mine expired,” he said. “We went to Walmart and did some other shopping to buy some new clothes.”
The biggest challenge for Fish was acclimating to home life.
“I’m having a tough time transitioning, especially my sleeping patterns,” he said. “I woke up about 2 a.m. this morning and went down and cooked myself a real American breakfast — bacon, eggs, toast and even some jam and jelly.
“You can’t have those (jam and jelly) in prison because they (inmates) can make them into alcohol.”
Among the first requests from one his daughters was to go fishing, as they often did before he was imprisoned.
“We’re going to do that tomorrow (Friday),” he promised her.
Although Fish is now a free man, his legal troubles are not over. On the same day he was escorted out of prison, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office announced it would challenge an Appellate Court ruling that overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial.
If the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, it could restore the Coconino County Superior Court’s guilty verdict, which would send Fish back to prison.
The Supreme Court could also choose to let the Appellate Court’s ruling stand.
Either way, Fish — who had served three years of his 10-year sentence — will remain free until the court decides his fate.
The former teacher does not believe the Supreme Court will overturn the lower court’s decision.
“There is just too much there, too much evidence (that the conviction should have been overturned),” he said.
Fish was convicted in June 2006 for the fatal shooting of 43-year-old Grant Kuenzli at a Coconino National Forest trailhead in May 2004.
Fish argued he acted in self-defense after Kuenzli’s dogs attacked him, followed quickly by a shouting Kuenzli.
Fish said he fired a warning shot at the dogs, which sent them scampering away, but Kuenzli continued to attack.
Early in the investigation, Fish told deputies he heard Kuenzli say, “I’m going to get you.”
Fish also said, “I don’t know if he thought I shot the dog… I’m yelling at him to stop and he’s right on top of me and he’s swinging his hands… he looked crazy.”
The former teacher shot Kuenzli three times in the chest with his 10 mm handgun.
There were no witnesses to the shooting.
The original investigator in the case, Coconino County Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Feagan, said he thought Fish acted in self-defense.
Mysteriously, Feagan was taken off the case and never testified at the trial.
Other Coconino County investigators later said Fish was not defending himself and the case was sent to trial.
During Fish’s trial, Coconino County Chief Deputy Attorney Mike Lessler contended Fish had other options than to shoot.
Conviction tossed out
When the state Appeals Court overturned Fish’s conviction last month, it ruled that Moran’s jury instructions were incorrect. The court also said the jury should have been allowed to hear testimony about Kuenzli’s alleged aggressive behavior when dogs in his care were confronted.
Only last week, Coconino County Attorney David Rozema said he would not retry Fish, partly because Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1419 into law. It shifts the burden of proof from the defense to the prosecution.
The new law was also made retroactive to the day Fish killed Kuenzli.
This highly controversial shooting drew nationwide attention in the fall of 2006 when “Dateline NBC” televised an hour-long segment that centered on the incident.
NBC officials tried unsuccessfully to obtain Kuenzli’s psychiatric evaluation and medical reports from the Payson Roundup.
The records reveal Kuenzli had been diagnosed with depression, panic and anxiety disorders and was taking medication for the disorders.
Moran refused to allow the jury to hear that information or other testimony about Kuenzli’s run-ins with the law, including a former girlfriend’s accusations that he had stalked and harassed her.
The jury also never heard that in February 2004, on a behavioral health services enrollment applicant, Kuenzli responded to the question, “Have you ever tried to hurt yourself or others in the past” answering “Last year suicide attempt.”
The shooting and resulting trial generated national debate about the safety of hiking alone in the woods, the use of handguns in self-defense and unleashed dogs on U.S. National Forests.