A man named Harold Fish died on September 8th after an extended battle with cancer. He left behind his wife Debora and seven children ranging in age from 8 years old to 23 years old. As Debora put it, "It was a great run while it lasted, we've had three good years of him being out of prison".
What makes Harold Fish's story relevant and worth revisiting is that he spent three years in prison and accumulated over $700,000 in legal fees fighting a poorly worded law after a terrible confrontation. How did it happen? According to Phoenix attorney Mel McDonald, who defended Fish, "It's real tragic. This guy was just a victim of a real catastrophe in the criminal-justice system".
To understand the story we have to go back to the spring of 2004 when Harold was on a day long solo hike on the Pine Canyon Trail in Arizona, which starts in the Tonto National Forest. As Harold was finishing the hike, he spotted a car and a man camping at the car with two dogs.
As he walked near he waved at the man. At this point the dogs charged. Harold fired a single shot into the ground from the 10mm handgun he carried with him on all hikes in the forest. The dogs heard the shot and diverted off trail. Hearing the shot the man, later identified as Grant Kuenzl, began charging Harold from a distance of just 30 yards. Harold repeatedly said he did not shoot the animals and told Kuenzl to stop.
With Kuenzl charging and fearing for his life, Harold fired three more shots and Kuenzl fell to the ground, mortally wounded. With no cellular signal in the forest, Harold hiked to a road and a motorist used OnStar to contact authorities.
Here's where Harold's story begins to change the law.
The Coconino County prosecutor's office decided to file charges of second degree murder. The prosecution went on the attack.
As said before, Harold ended up spending over seven hundred thousand dollars in legal bills and still did not end up with a good ending. He was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison - effectively a life sentence for the almost 60 year old retired teacher.
As a result of Harold's railroading, Arizona changed it's laws putting the onus back onto the prosecution to show that a person did not act in self defense. In 2006, Arizona adopted Senate Bill 1145 instituting the Castle Doctrine throughout the state. On July 13, 2009 Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1449 causing the Arizona's Castle Doctrine law to be retroactive to cover Harold's situation in the event of a retrial.
Harolds case was re-tried and he was released after a 3 year imprisonment.
Harold Fish was the victim of a terrible set of laws that put the onus on a person who defends themselves from harm or death. Thanks to his situation, the laws now provide that a person who defends themselves is actually presumed innocent. My thoughts go to Debora and all of Harold's family in the wake of his passing.
Why does Harold Fish matter, even now?
Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. Just a few short years later we are already seeing the Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws attacked. These laws help to prevent tragedies like the one Harold and Debora went through.
Know the story, tell the story, make sure people understand why these laws matter.