Mary Beth Harshbarger, a Pennsylvania woman who shot and killed her husband during a 2006 hunting trip in central Newfoundland, was found not guilty Friday of criminal negligence causing death.
Harshbarger, 45, who has always claimed she mistook Mark Harshbarger, 42, for a black bear while the two were hunting outside Buchans Junction, wept after hearing the verdict.
Justice Richard LeBlanc of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador brought down the decision at Grand Falls-Windsor, ending a legal saga that involved an extradition battle and a Pennsylvania family that was sharply divided over the fatal shooting.
LeBlanc said the death of Mark Harshbarger was the "result of an accident and nothing more."
Harshbarger left the courthouse in Grand Falls-Windsor without saying a word.
"She just wants to see her kids," her lawyer, Karl Inder, told reporters.
Harshbarger, who has been in custody since May, had fought a lengthy extradition battle with Canadian authorities. She ultimately surrendered to police this spring.
If she had been convicted, she would have faced a minimum prison sentence of four years.
LeBlanc told the courtroom the Crown did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
The verdict was met with anger from Mark Harshbarger's family, who had lobbied to have their now-estranged in-law charged with a criminal offence.
"It's very wrong," said Dean Harshbarger, one of Mark's brothers.
"It's a shame for the people of Newfoundland because it just says that anybody who picks berries, or takes wildlife photographs, or any other reason to be in the woods, are fair game for anybody with a gun [and] a hunting licence [who can] shoot 'em and say, 'Whoops, I mistook 'em for something else.'"
Single bullet to abdomen
Mark Harshbarger died after being struck by a single bullet to his abdomen. He had been walking with a guide the couple hired and was standing in tall grass.
The Harshbargers' two preschool children had been sitting in a pickup truck near their mother when the fatal shot was fired.
Witnesses told LeBlanc that it was too dark that evening for anyone to have shot at any target with certainty.
Court was told that Mary Beth Harshbarger was about 60 metres away from her husband when she shot him. No other footprints or animal tracks were found in the grassy area where Mark Harshbarger was shot, police said.
But LeBlanc was also given mitigating evidence. No one in the hunting party wore an orange hat or an orange vest that evening.
As well, while the RCMP conducted two re-enactments of the shooting, one of the witnesses — Reg White, who owns the lodge where the Harshbargers stayed — testified that what he saw "didn't look like a man to me." The target he was asked to look at was a Mountie assuming the same position as Mark Harshbarger.
A police interview with Mary Beth Harshbarger just hours after the shooting was also played in court. During the interview, she admitted she should not have taken the shot and it was too dark to shoot.
LeBlanc said the taped interview played a critical role in his verdict.
In the interview, Harshbarger described for police how she had seen a rounded, dark figure moving slowly through tall grass.
Dr. Nash Denic, who performed the autopsy, testified Mark Harshbarger was likely hunched or leaning forward when he was shot, likely because his eyes were on the ground in front of him.
Prosecutor Karen O'Reilly defended the evidence the Crown submitted to the court over the nine days of testimony.
"The relevant evidence was put before the justice," O'Reilly said. "If there's other evidence about her past, if it wasn't relevant to put before the court, then it would not have been appropriate to put it before the justice."