State lawmakers are making a last-ditch effort to change self-defense laws retroactively to help overturn the murder conviction of one man and help another escape being found guilty.
A bill sent to Gov. Janet Napolitano in the last hours of the legislative session would spell out that a law altering the selfdefense statutes which took effect on April 24, 2006 applies to any cases that had not yet gone to the jury on that date.
Napolitano vetoed a similar measure earlier this year, saying she feared that the change would upset far too many cases. So Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, recrafted the legislation to narrow its scope.
But Rick Unklesbay, chief criminal deputy attorney for Pima County, said this latest version is still ill-advised and said Napolitano should veto it, too.
The governor said she is reviewing this measure — and several others sent to her when the Legislature adjourned late Wednesday — and will decide this week.
Most immediately, an altered law would grant a new trial to Harold Fish. The teacher was convicted of the 2004 murder of hiker Grant Kuenzli on a trail in rural Coconino County.
Fish said he fired his gun after Kuenzli’s dogs — and then Kuenzli — attacked him.
A revised law also would make it easier for David Rene Garcia to plead self-defense in his upcoming trial in Pima County. Garcia is accused of shooting his girlfriend, which he said was done in self-defense.
Central to the issue is that the law in effect prior to April 2006 was that people claiming self-defense had to prove they were in fear for their lives to be acquitted. The new law says once someone claims self-defense, it is up to prosecutors to prove otherwise.
Efforts by both men to demand a trial under the new standard failed. The state Supreme Court ruled that the 2006 law was worded in a way to apply only to crimes committed after its effective date.
Gray said that wasn’t the intent of lawmakers. So she is seeking to say the April 24, 2006, law should apply to cases pending on that date.
In vetoing the first measure, Napolitano said it would reopen an untold number of cases in which defendants already have pleaded guilty, not just to murder charges but to lesser crimes such as assault.
And the governor said that would be a burden on the courts and force victims and their families to go through yet another trial.
In an effort to placate Napolitano, Gray recrafted the bill. It now would apply only to those defendants whose cases had not yet gone to a jury on that date.
That language would specifically bar those who have since entered into plea deals from now seeking to void those deals and instead take their chances of going to trial and claiming self-defense.
“It’s better,” said Unklesbay. “But it’s still bad.”
He said there’s no reason why the Legislature should change the law retroactively.