Sunday, July 17, 2011

Man exonerated but still penalized by a huge debt

Time slowed for Harold Fish as the man rushed toward him on the hiking trail outside Payson. His gun drawn, Fish had time to do all the things his self-defense instructors had taught him, the ones it seemed he never would have time to do in the heat of the moment.

Fish already had fired at the ground in front of three growling dogs running toward him, scaring them away. But it didn't deter the man running toward him.

Fish looked at the man's hands, which were clenched into fists. Maybe, he thought, to hide a small knife. He locked on the man's eyes and didn't see any sense of him backing down. It wasn't the look an unarmed man would have in the face of a weapon.

"A switch just gets thrown in your head," Fish, 64, said as he remembered the May 2004 incident. "All of a sudden, the gun comes up and you start seeing yourself pull the trigger. "In the back of your mind, a voice is there saying, 'You have to stop this now.' " Fish did, with three shots. Grant Kuenzli, 43, collapsed at his feet.

It was the quintessential situation cited by gun-carrying citizens. Fish was able to defend himself against an imminent attack.

He had gone through training to ready himself for such a scenario. But Fish was not prepared for what was to follow.

He was put on trial and found guilty of murder. He was imprisoned. He faced the possibility of a civil trial from Kuenzli's family. He still finds himself in deep debt to pay his attorneys, who were able to get an appellate court to toss his conviction in 2009.

"What nobody teaches is what happens when you use that firearm," Fish said, speaking from his Glendale home. "They focus on you surviving the incident."

Those who carry a gun for self-defense do so because of the off-chance that they will need to protect themselves. Imagined scenarios involve someone breaking into their home or accosting them.

That is why Fish started carrying a gun for self-defense, including while camping or hiking. But he thought that most likely he would only use it to shoot a rabid coyote or a skunk that wandered into his camp. "It was like a spare tire in the car," he said. "In case something happened."

Something happened on May 11, 2004. Fish was completing a 10-mile hike near Strawberry. He waved to a man camped outside his car with three dogs. It was Kuenzli, the man he would kill minutes later.

Kuenzli, who was living out of his car, volunteered at an animal shelter and had picked up two of the dogs to give them a day of exercise. He had his own dog, as well. None was leashed. Fish saw the dogs running toward him, the lead one snarling, and fired at the ground. The dogs turned tail.

Then, Fish saw Kuenzli run at him. Fish lifted his gun and fired three times.

Fish believes Kuenzli would have tried to knock him out or done damage with the screwdriver Kuenzli had in his back pocket. Fish figured a rational person would have stopped once the person had seen his weapon and heard it fire. "He crossed the threshold in his mind somewhere," Fish said. "At some point, he decided to go all in and take me out."

The detective investigating the scene initially told Fish the shooting would probably be ruled self-defense. But the story drew state and national attention, and the Coconino County Attorney's Office was flooded with phone calls and e-mails demanding prosecution.

The county attorney charged Fish with murder. A jury convicted him, and Fish was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Being in prison let Fish see that there is truly a criminal element in society that cannot be reasoned with. "I met guys by the dozen that I hope and pray should never get out of prison," he said.

It's part of the reason he still carries. He's allowed to because his felony conviction was erased.

Fish's conviction was tossed out by the Arizona Court of Appeals, which ruled that the jury wasn't told enough about Kuenzli's violent past or the aggressive nature of the dogs and didn't get proper instructions about what constitutes an attack.

Fish was released from prison in July 2009. Prosecutors said they would not prosecute him again.

Upon his release, Kuenzli's sister, Linda Almeter, told The Republic that she didn't want Fish free and that he never took responsibility for his act. "My brother can never reclaim his life," she said.

Fish has his freedom, but he can't recoup the dollars he spent fighting the case. He took out a second mortgage on his house. Relatives did the same with theirs, including his retired father. Fish estimates he spent about $700,000 on legal fees. He expects he'll die before all of it is paid back.

"I can't afford to go to court again," he said. "I cannot withstand another prosecution."

He still hunts with a gun and carries a handgun for protection. But if he's ever confronted again, he said he'll try a different self-defense tactic. "He's going to be shooting me in the back because I'm running away."

Original report here

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