A black mass is not a safe target, expert tells trial

Sue Hickey
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A sheriff's officer escorts Mary Beth Harshbarger to the courtroom Thursday morning in Grand Falls-Windsor.

GRAND FALLS-WINDSOR — It would not be safe or responsible to fire on a black mass unless it could be identified, a firearms and hunting instructor said Thursday at the criminal trial of a U.S. woman who killed her husband on a hunting trip.

Mary Beth Harshbarger, 45, from rural Meshoppen, Pa., has said she mistook her husband Mark, 42, for a bear when she shot and killed him on Sept. 14, 2006, near Buchans Junction.

Chris Baldwin, a manager in the provincial wildlife service, told Harshbarger’s trial the mere appearance of a bear would not be sufficient to confirm its identity before firing.

“That’s a target that I would not shoot at,” he said, later adding, “A big black thing low to the ground could be a moose. It could be a boulder.”

It could also be a human being, said Baldwin, a certified restricted firearms instructor who teaches hunting safety.

Harshbarger is being tried on a count of criminal negligence causing death in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labra­dor.

Justice Richard LeBlanc, who is hearing the judge-alone trial, permitted Baldwin’s expert testimony on safe hunting practice but did not allow direct questions on the shooting death itself.

Crown Attorney Karen O’Reilly asked Baldwin hypothetical questions about what he’d do if he saw a “dark object that’s bobbing and weaving” while on a bear hunting trip.

The accused told police after the shooting that what she saw through her rifle scope about 60 metres from where the victim fell was “a big black thing.”

Mark Harshbarger was wearing dark clothes and no orange safety gear when he died. He had gone into the woods with a guide but emerged alone when the second man briefly stopped.

Baldwin said required big-game training courses and a wide array of readily available publications stress that it’s the hunter’s duty to confirm before firing that a target is the animal for which they have a licence.

Defence lawyer Karl Inder asked under cross-examination whether it isn’t also a hunter’s responsibility to be clearly visible.

Baldwin agreed that anyone who goes into the woods in Newfoundland during hunting season shares a duty to protect themselves and others. Still, he confirmed that orange reflective gear isn’t required in the province or six others.

Baldwin said there are other ways to be seen, such as wearing red or white. He also said he would go into the brush in big-game hunting season without reflective clothing as long as he knows the terrain and the other hunters in the area.

Earlier Thursday, Inder raised questions about how the lead RCMP officer investigated the shooting death.

He asked Cpl. Doug Hewitt whether another officer who re-enacted the victim’s movements one year later was wearing orange safety gear. Hewitt said that would have defeated the purpose but conceded there could have been hunters in the area at the time.

Inder raised the prospect that Hewitt himself could have been accused of criminal negligence if his officer had been shot.

Inder also asked Hewitt whether the decision to charge the accused was motivated by pressure from her family and media interest in the case.

Hewitt agreed that RCMP officers initially considered Harshbarger’s death to be an accident.

In an e-mail to the accused dated Nov. 22, 2006, he referred to how Mark Harshbarger’s family was “stirring a commotion” and stressed the importance of ensuring his death was accidental.

Inder referred Hewitt to his own reports on the case, including one dated Oct. 18, 2007, 13 months after the killing.

Hewitt agreed that he wrote that the evidence gathered by police at the scene and during two re-enactments — two days after the shooting and one a year later — was “more indicative of an accident.”

Inder also cited another report in which Hewitt wrote: “This matter deals with an American citizen taking the life of another American citizen.”

The case had generated “an enormous amount of media attention,” he wrote.

Inder asked Hewitt whether he felt pressured to lay a criminal charge.

“Did you feel like you had to do something?”

The RCMP officer replied, “I felt that a man had died and that should be pursued.”

Hewitt said in the months after the shooting, the RCMP was “getting volumes of information from U.S. authorities” that led him and another officer to interview several people in Pennsylvania in September 2007.

Under cross-examination, Hewitt said the trip was to follow up on another charge, not the one for which the accused is now being tried. He did not elaborate.

The RCMP issued a warrant for Harshbarger’s arrest on April 30, 2008. She was brought to Newfoundland last May after losing a two-year extradition fight.

Hewitt is among three re-enactment witnesses since the trial started Monday to say it was too dark at the time of the shooting, about 7:55 p.m., to identify her target.

Hewitt said all he could see through her rifle scope during a re-enactment of her husband’s last movements was “a black mass.”

But in the second re-enactment, he admitted there were no distinguishing features that would lead one to believe the figure in question was a bear.

“In my opinion, from shooting animals, I could not believe what I saw was a bear.”

The trial is expected to continue through next week. If convicted, Harshbarger faces a penalty of four years to a life term in prison.

The Advertiser with files from The Canadian Press

Organizations: RCMP, Supreme Court, Canadian Press

Geographic location: U.S., Newfoundland, Meshoppen Pennsylvania

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