Woman found not guilty in husband’s hunting death, arguing she mistook him for a bear

Friday, October 1, 2010

Hunter who shot husband found not guilty

GRAND FALLS-WINDSOR, Newfoundland — An American woman was found not guilty Friday of criminal negligence causing death in the fatal shooting of her husband while hunting four years ago in central Newfoundland.

Justice Richard LeBlanc of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador said the prosecution failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mary Beth Harshbarger recklessly breached the standard of care expected by a person in such circumstances.

LeBlanc blamed the shooting on “a constellation of unfortunate facts that reasonably caused Mrs. Harshbarger to believe she was shooting at a bear.”

LeBlanc said Harshbarger was free to return home to rural Meshoppen, Pennsylvania.

Harshbarger visibly trembled and then sobbed as the judge read his decision. She did not comment on the ruling to reporters.

“Mary Beth wants to go home to her children right now,” her attorney, Karl Inder, said, without elaborating, before the pair drove off in his white Mercedes.

During the nine-day trial, prosecutors had argued that Harshbarger, 45, showed disregard for safety when she fired her rifle at her 42-year-old husband, Mark, who wasn’t wearing an orange safety vest or hat at the time. They were hunting for black bear and moose on Sept. 14, 2006, near Buchans Junction, Newfoundland.

The defense portrayed the death as an accident. Harshbarger has always said she thought she was shooting at a bear.

If she had been convicted, Harshbarger faced a sentence of four years to life in prison. She had been in jail since her extradition in May.

The Harshbargers’ two children — a young son and daughter — were with their mother in a pickup truck parked about 200 feet (60 meters) from where their father was killed.

During the trial, a hunting guide told the court that Harshbarger became “hysterical” when she was told she had killed her husband.

In her closing arguments, prosecutor Karen O’Reilly said Harshbarger showed “heedless” disregard for the “huge risk” she created when she fired her rifle after sunset.

Defense lawyer Inder agreed hunters must know what they’re shooting at before pulling the trigger, but added “it’s also true that accidents happen.”

The victim’s father, 77-year-old Lee Harshbarger, was in court every day during the trial, which wrapped up on Sept. 23. The retired conservation officer was bitterly disappointed at the news of the ruling.

He said he hopes the prosecution will appeal to another judge who better understands hunting and the outdoors.

“This kind of decision says that it’s OK to shoot at a black mass. If you don’t positively identify it and if anybody goes out there on an ATV with their dark coat and they go down one of those trails and somebody shoots them, that’s saying it’s OK,” he said.

Prosecutor O’Reilly said she has 30 days to review the judge’s decision before deciding whether to appeal.

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