Judge Turns Down Request For New Trial In Henfling Murder Conviction
In a ruling issued on Wednesday, a Third District Court judge has turned down the request for a new trial for James Enoch Henfling, who was convicted for the shooting death of a Park City bartender.
Henfling’s attorney says they will appeal the decision and it’s likely going to the Supreme Court
Henfling, now 30 years old, was arrested for shooting 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.
In the fall of 2017, he was convicted on one count of Murder and a count of Felony Discharge of a Firearm. Early in 2018, Judge Corum sentenced Henfling to a prison term of 16 years to Life.
In court Wednesday, the judge summarized his findings on a host of arguments made by the defense.
“Mr. Henfling received a fair trial and the evidence of his guilt was persuasive and non-speculative.” Judge Corum said, “I don’t know that I would call the evidence overwhelming but it is not thin. It was substantial. Again, whatever errors existed do not amount to human error by any stretch. Mr. Henfling—the problems with the instructions aside—was represented by two of the very best, most well-prepared defense attorneys in the entire state. The trial judge who heard this case was one of the very best and brightest and the prosecutors in this case all have a well-earned reputation for excellence, fairness and reasonableness. That certainly doesn’t preclude error or unfairness I just find that there’s non-presented here in the standards at this stage of litigation. No basis for finding that warrants a new trial has been set forth.”
One major issue from the defense was whether there was sufficient evidence to support the jury verdict, given Henfling’s claim of self-defense.
“While the defendant does quite frankly a masterful job of laying out a version of the facts, it is just that, it is the defendant’s version of the facts.” Judge Corum continued, “That version is based largely on the testimony of the defendant’s sister which the jury seems to have disbelieved. Most, if not all, of the facts that side and support self-defense depend on witness credibility. The jury is entitled to disregard the testimony of witnesses they do not believe. If they disbelieve the evidence offered to support and affirm the defense, they may certainly find that the state has met its burden on the issue. Also, ample evidence via the scene evidence to support a finding the state had disproven self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. While certainly not the only permissible inference or reasonable inference to be drawn the jury could reasonable infer that the scene evidence supported the state’s view of events, and at the time of the shooting Jose did not pose any threat to the defendant.”
He said some basic facts were undisputed.
“Stripped of everything else the evidence clearly shows, and indeed is essentially undisputed Mr. Henfling brought his gun to Park City, took his gun out, pointed at Jose and shot him once in the forehead from close range.” Judge Corum stated, “Such evidence alone in and of itself supports each and every one of the mens rea variance under the statute.”
Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson said that Judge Corum came to the right conclusion, after examining a voluminous amount of evidence.
“The briefing in the post-trial motion was approximately 250 pages of written argument by both sides.” County Attorney Olson explained, “It was clear to me that Judge Corum had carefully reviewed not only all of the written submissions by council but also, he said that he reviewed the record of the trial which as you recall went two-weeks long. So, the thing that stood out to me was it was clear that Judge Corum had put a lot of time into considering these issues and had done a lot of work analyzing it for himself.”
On some other items the defense claimed two instances of prosecutorial misconduct in the final statement to the jury. They claimed Deputy Prosecutor Patricia Cassell suddenly introduced the idea that Henfling stood over the victim in an execution-style posture. And second, Cassell expressed skeptical opinions about the credibility of Henfling and his sister Elise.
However, Judge Corum said both those positions were based on evidence and testimony at the trial.
Olson told KPCW that she was, in particular, gratified that the judge upheld the statements from Cassell.
“It’s always hard to hear prosecutorial misconduct so I was particularly pleased to hear Judge Corum rule the way he did and find that Ms. Cassell’s closing was in all ways proper.”
Also, the judge said that one jury instruction was, at the least, confusing. But he said given the overall circumstances it didn’t have a substantive adverse impact for the defendant.
Defense attorney Anne Marie Taliaferro, in an e-mail to KPCW, said they appreciated the Judge’s thorough review of the case. But she said they will appeal and are hopeful an appellate court will see “that the issue we presented are, indeed, prejudicial and at least warrant a new trial.”
County Attorney Olsen told KPCW that the case will go to the supreme court, though the panel could later refer it to the State Court of Appeals.