The Arizona Supreme Court on Dec. 1 delivered the third legal victory for West Valley resident Harold Fish, who garnered national attention and a 10-year sentence for his fatal shooting of a man on a northern Arizona hiking trail.
On Dec. 1, the court declined to consider an appeal filed by the Attorney General’s Office that sought to reverse an appellate court decision that ordered Fish to receive a new trial in Coconino County for shooting and killing Grant Kuenzli. Reversing the order for a new trial would have meant that Fish’s murder conviction still was in effect.
Fish and Kuenzli crossed paths on a Coconino County trail on May 11, 2004, and Fish has maintained he acted in self-defense when he shot Kuenzli three times in the chest at close range. He said Kuenzli charged him in a threatening manner after he fired a warning shot to deter Kuenzli’s aggressive dogs.
The retired teacher was later convicted of second-degree murder and spent more than three years in prison before the Arizona Court of Appeals reversed his conviction in June. In a unanimous decision, the panel awarded Fish a new trial because he was not allowed to present evidence that showed Kuenzli was mentally unstable and violent.
Prosecutors with the Coconino County Attorney’s Office contended Kuenzli’s past was largely irrelevant and inadmissible at trial, as Fish would have been unaware of the man’s tendencies or character at the time of the shooting.
The Court of Appeals’ decision followed a significant victory for Fish that occurred in July, when Gov. Jan Brewer signed legislation that made changes in Arizona’s self-defense laws retroactive in order to apply to Fish’s case.
Fish said the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision to avoid considering the Attorney General’s appeal provided some comfort that his ordeal is over.
“I never felt I was guilty and felt that I was never able to communicate that in a way the system would understand,” he said. “We tried and tried, but they just didn’t want to hear what really happened. Once they (Coconino Attorney’s Office) got it into their mind they wanted to pursue a conviction, then no amount of reason or truth would deter them.”
Following the appellate decision in June, the Coconino County Attorney’s Office announced it would not seek a retrial of Fish if the appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court was unsuccessful. The office cited a lack of evidence and witnesses to the shooting.
The Attorney General’s Office sought a reversal of the appellate decision, which the office claimed disregarded existing case law that forbids defendants from presenting damaging evidence against victims.
Kent Cattani, chief of criminal appeals for Attorney General Terry Goddard, said the appellate opinion could “open the doors” to allowing victims’ characters to be examined when character information is simply not relevant to a case.
Still, Cattani said it’s unlikely that the Attorney General’s Office will ask the Arizona Supreme Court to reconsider its decision.