Hunter’s conversations with police can be used in trial for shooting death, judge rules
A Grand County District Court judge ruled that statements a hunter made to law enforcement officers before he was arrested for negligent homicide can be used as evidence in an upcoming trial.
Harry Watkins, 52, who is accused of shooting and killing 26-year-old Simon Howell of West Virginia on Nov. 9, 2020 while they were hunting outside Kremmling, pleaded not guilty to negligent homicide in May 2021, setting up a trial.
The trial was originally scheduled for October, but due to COVID-19 court protocols it has been pushed several times and is now scheduled for 10 days starting June 6.
During a two-day motions hearing on Dec. 16 and Feb. 7 involving several witness testimonies, attorney David Jones representing Watkins argued that the statements Watkins made to law enforcement in the field and leading up to his arrest were made under duress and should not be allowed as evidence.
On the day of Howell’s death, Watkins called the police and spoke with several officers from the Grand County Sheriff’s Office and Colorado Parks and Wildlife during the several hours they initially investigated Howell’s death.
Jones previously told Sky-Hi News that Watkins believed he was shooting at a downed elk attempting to get up, though it was actually Howell, who had taken off his hunting vest and was wearing a red shirt.
Jones also argued police violated Watkins’ Miranda Rights, which would mean Watkins’ statements prior to being Mirandized could not be used as evidence.
“The elements of shock and emotional distress for Mr. Watkins are continuing and I would submit that his statements are becoming more and more involuntary,” Jones said.
However, 14th Judicial District Attorney Matt Karzen and Chief Deputy Attorney Kathryn Dowdell argued the statements were made voluntarily and should be allowed to be admitted during trial.
They noted Watkins was not in custody for the majority of his statements, which is a requirement to prove a Miranda violation.
“The tone of that conversation was conversational, there were no threats, no promises, no use of force, no restraint,” Dowdell said. “A reasonable person in the defendant’s circumstances would believe they’re free to go at that time and the officers were just gathering basic information about what happened.”
District Court Judge Mary Hoak ultimately agreed with the prosecutors, finding Watkins’ statements should not be suppressed for the trial since he made them freely.
Hoak described Watkins’ behavior while interacting with law enforcement before his arrest as atoning and trying to help the investigation in good faith.
“Throughout all of Mr. Watkins’ encounters with law enforcement, Mr. Watkins is trying to be helpful,” Hoak said. “It is clear that he feels terrible about what has occurred and it’s clear that he’s doing everything he can in his power to try and help the situation.”
The motions hearing will continue on Feb. 28.
Over the phone on Thursday, Jones told the Sky-Hi News that he wasn’t concerned about what Watkins said to law enforcement, so much as whether his rights were being violated.
Karzen said on Thursday that he wouldn’t comment on the case while the trial is pending.
According to Colorado statute, the maximum penalty for criminally negligent homicide includes one to three years with the Department of Corrections, unless there are mitigating or aggravating factors, and two years of mandatory parole.
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