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Judge Hears Arguments For Request For Retrial Of Murder Conviction

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Third District Court Judge Patrick Corum is scheduled to issue a ruling on January 2nd. That comes after he heard arguments last week, over the request from James Henfling to overturn his conviction for shooting a Park City bartender nearly three years ago.

In the fall of last year, Henfling was convicted on one count of Murder and a Count of Felony Discharge of a Firearm. The defendant shot Jose Fernandez to death in February of 2016 after a fight broke out between the two men during a late-night party at the victim’s Oldtown apartment.

Earlier this year, Judge Corum sentenced the 30-year-old defendant to a prison term of 16 years to life.

At the recent hearing, his defense counsel Anne Marie Taliaferro asked that the Guilty Verdict be overturned or that Henfling receive a new trial. She contended that the evidence was insufficient or legally defective, that the instructions given to the jury were flawed, and that there were mistakes made by the prosecution and Henfling’s defense at the trial. She alleged that in their final statement to the jury, the prosecution introduced the idea that when Henfling fired the fatal shot, he was looming over the victim in an execution-style posture. That brought a question from Judge Corum.

“I’m not trying to impugn anybody’s integrity,” Taliaferro continued, “but the prosecutor misstated or misconstrued or somehow mischaracterized the evidence and argued a surprise execution theory literally in the last moments before the jury walked out to deliberate.”

“So what?” Judge Corum asked. “Honestly I don’t understand so help me. I’m not aware of any burden they have to disclose their theory to you at any point in trial. They are free to argue whatever it is they believe is supported by the evidence.”

“They are free as long as it’s supported by the evidence.” Taliaferro answered, “It wasn’t supported by the evidence.”

She also said the prosecution repeatedly stated that Henfling was not honest or credible.

“Again, while it may be permissible to point out that somebodies’ stories are inconsistent with the evidence or maybe they changed their stories.” Taliaferro argued, “It is not permissible, at least 16 times, to say things like ‘You can’t believe anything he says.’ ‘The defendant has made up stories over and over again,’ ‘He’ll do whatever it takes to set up his self-defense’ ‘He did not act out of self-defense’ ‘Evidence shows that nothing he said can be believed’ ‘You can’t believe anything he says.’ How is that in any way okay? That is commenting over and over and over that he is completely not credible.”

The attorney reviewed evidence or witness statements that would show, she said, that Henfling acted in self-defense.

But in response, County Chief Prosecutor Patricia Cassell said that the defense was attempting to re-try the case.

“What that was, and what we believe it was basically another closing argument.” Cassell explained, “Another attempt to relitigate this case, relitigate what the evidence shows. It’s not the providence of this court to become a second fact finder. The jury heard all of this. The jury heard every single bit of these pieces of evidence. The arguments were made that showing the credibility of the witnesses for instance. They can argue that the witnesses were credible, they can argue that the witnesses are credible we can argue that they aren’t. The defendant is not entitled to a reversal simply because his version is different from the state’s version.”

In addition, Prosecutor Ryan Stack said that their jury statement about the defendant looming over the victim wasn’t a new theory—just a characterization of what they had presented.

Stack added that when they attacked Henfling’s credibility, it was based on the evidence.

“The comments in this case were tied to the evidence.” Stack said, “There were comments about the defendant’s credibility, but the record was robust with examples of him telling multiple different stories. Several of them were demonstrably false. Suggesting that the shooting took place in the parking lot by his truck. At one point telling a law enforcement officer that Jose walked away after the shooting. There are a variety of stories and I can go on but it’s in the briefing that the defendant told. So, to comment on his credibility was not improper. It was incredibly proper, and those comments were tied to that evidence.”

Known for getting all the facts right, as well as his distinctive sign-off, Rick covers Summit County meetings and issues. KPCW snagged him from The Park Record in the '80s, and he's been on air and covering the entire county ever since. He produces the Week In Review podcast, as well a heads the Friday Film Review team.
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