Closing arguments made in trial around hunter shooting death

Harry Watkins looks on during his trial Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, at the 14th Judicial District Courthouse in Hot Sulphur Springs.
Kyle McCabe/Sky-Hi News

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the point of view of videos shown during Edward Wilkestestimony.

Closing arguments were made Friday in The People v. Harry Watkins negligent homicide case.

Watkins, 53, is accused of shooting and killing then-26-year-old Simon Howell of West Virginia on Nov. 9, 2020, while they were hunting outside Kremmling. Watkins pleaded not guilty to negligent homicide in May 2021, setting up a trial. Watkins is being charged with criminally negligent homicide.

Over last week, the prosecution and defense questioned multiple members of Watkins’ hunting party, the mother of shooting victim Simon Howell, law enforcement involved after the event and expert witnesses on subjects ranging from the five laws of gun safety to hunters’ education.

Today, the prosecution focused on the fact that it was “Watkins’ gun, his trigger and his finger” that led to the death of Howell. The defense continued to insist that Watkins was “deeply sorry” for what they characterize as a mistake, and Howell, who removed his blaze orange hunting vest and hat to gut an elk, was partially responsible for his own death.

The defense’s last witness on Friday was Edward Wilkes, an investigator with the Colorado Alternate Defense Counsel who defense attorney David Jones presented as an expert witness on firearms, firearm safety, and hunting rules, laws and regulations associated with firearms.

Wilkes let it be known that he is not a big game hunter. But he said he has worked as a police officer and gun safety instructor, that his family owns a gun shop, and that he had accompanied many friends on hunting trips and understands the rules and regulations of hunting.  

Wilkes explained that he had researched Colorado, Pennsylvania and Maryland hunters’ education courses for this case because Watkins and Howell did their courses in the latter two states, respectively. 

Wilkes testified he believes Watkins followed the five rules of firearm safety when he was out hunting with Howell. He added that wearing blaze orange “is the most important thing they talk about” to avoid a shooting accident.

The defense then showed multiple videos from the point of view of someone standing in dark timber. “Putting on an orange hat makes you instantly and readily identifiable,” he said. “(They) also show (how) pants and shirts blend into a natural plant environment let alone an animal.”

In his cross-examination, 14th Judicial District Attorney Matt Karzen focused on the rule that requires a shooter to know what is in the area around and behind their target — something Wilkes said Watkins did know, but Karzen disagreed, suggesting that without that and a knowledge of the area around and behind the target, taking a shot would amount to a violation of hunter safety.

Jones’ redirect questions for Wilkes focused on positive target identification, Watkins’ view through what Wilkes described as a high-end scope, and whether or not field dressing an animal is a part of the hunting process.

The jury had several questions for Wilkes, including one about a test he did with a gun identical to Watkins’ to see how far casings would fly out of it while shooting from different crouched positions and with different grips on the rifle. Jones asked more questions of Wilkes to close out his testimony, including if he thought the elk’s blood was the same color as Howell’s shirt, to which Wilkes answered yes.

After a lunch break, the two sides gave their closing arguments, with Karzen going first for the prosecution. He emphasized that their decision rests on the question of criminal negligence, which Colorado law defines as an act where someone, “through a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would exercise, he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that a result will occur or that a circumstance exists.”

Karzen argued that Watkins did not act as a reasonable person would in his situation because he did not move closer to his target, try to get a better vantage point or know what was behind or around his target, among other points. 

Karzen also said the defense tried to blame Howell for his death by arguing he broke the law by not wearing his orange vest or hat while field dressing the elk. He said the case was not about Howell, but about Watkins’ decision to pull the trigger.

In his closing argument, Jones argued that Watkins, an experienced hunter, made an innocent mistake by shooting Howell. He claimed that reasonable hunters often make similar mistakes, meaning it could not be criminal negligence by definition. 

Jones accused the prosecution of trying to manipulate the jury’s emotions through things like showing autopsy photos and calling Howell’s mother, Lisa, to testify. He also asked the jury if they think doctors, nurses and other professionals who make a mistake should be tried for homicide.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Kathryn Dowdell gave a rebuttal to Jones’ closing argument. She focused on his attacks on the prosecution and their witnesses and his claim that Watkins did his best but was fooled. 

Dowdell emphasized that criminally negligent homicide is not murder or manslaughter and reemphasized what the prosecution believes a reasonable person in Watkins’ situation would have done. She then played a video clip of Watkins describing what he saw through his scope in an interview with law enforcement.

The jury deliberated until 4:50 p.m. when 14th Judicial District Judge Mary Hoak released them for the weekend. They deliberated Monday and left at 5 p.m. with no verdict.

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