Trial begins in case around death of hunter Simon Howell

Editor’s note: This story was updated to accurately reflect the title of the Chief Deputy District Attorney.

Jury selection, opening remarks and the first day of testimony were Monday, Sept. 19, in The People v. Harry Watkins negligent homicide case.

Watkins, 52, is accused of shooting and killing 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.

According to Colorado statute, the maximum penalty for criminally negligent homicide includes one to three years with the Department of Corrections and two years of mandatory parole, unless there are mitigating or aggravating factors.

Few details about the incident have been publicly provided, but 14th Judicial District Attorney Matt Karzen indicated in November 2021 that the charges were brought because prosecutors believe Watkins behaved recklessly.

“The rules of hunting safety exist to keep this exact kind of tragedy from happening,” Karzen said in a news release announcing Watkins’ charges. “Complacency and lack of discipline is all it takes for someone to be killed.”

Jury selection was completed Monday morning and the trial began at 3:30 p.m. with opening remarks by Karzen.

Karzen focused on the idea that Watkins killed Howell “with the information he had in the moment,” and, he emphasized, “more importantly with the information that he knew that he lacked.”

He described Watkins firing his rifle three times, in quick succession, through thick timber and with a low-quality scope from about 30 yards and hitting Howell in the neck. The shot killed Howell instantly, he said.

Karzen said Watkins showed negligence in his “fixation” in getting the elk, leading him to fire his rifle without knowing where his bullets would end up.

Karzen said the evidence will show that Watkins violated hunting and firearms safety. “He wasn’t sure where those rounds would land, and he fired anyway, and because of that, Simon Howell is dead.”

Watkins’ defense attorney, David Jones, however, described Watkins as a man who’d made a terrible mistake. He said Watkins was “deeply sorry” for shooting Howell, but that at the time, he was 100% certain he was shooting a wounded elk.

In his opening statement, Jones described Watkins “bawling, retching, praying” once he realized what he’d done after seeing Howell’s body.

“He was not acting with gross negligence. He was being careful and he was horribly wrong,” he said.

Finally, Jones maintained that the entire incident could have been prevented if Howell had worn his blaze orange hunting vest—an item Howell had with him, but which he had allegedly taken off before he was shot.

“One thing could have prevented all of this from happening: (if) Simon had kept his orange on,” said Jones.

Three witnesses were called to the stand by Chief Deputy District Attorney Kathryn Dowdell after the opening remarks: David Cunningham, who was hunting with Watkins on the day of Howell’s death; Undersheriff Wayne Schafer, from the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, who was one of the first law enforcement officials to respond to the scene; and Detective David Miller, also with the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, who responded with Schafer.

The three men were questioned individually, largely about the scene. Dowdell presented a voice recording Cunningham made to Grand County dispatch and footage from a body cam Miller wore when he responded.

The trial is expected to continue for the rest of this week and into next.

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