Executive Council hears testimony at Bird pardon hearing
February 03, 2011MOULTONBORO — Ward Bird along with family and friends testified before the Executive Council as they weighed potential pardon options.
Supporters braved the snow to pack Council chambers at the Statehouse in support of Bird at the pardon hearing for his criminal threatening conviction.
In 2006, Bird was found guilty of criminal threatening following an incident where Christine Harris reported he waved a gun at her to get off his property. The New Hampshire Supreme Court upheld the conviction in October of 2010 and Bird surrendered to serve a minimum three-year prison sentence for criminal threatening with a firearm. Members of the community have rallied to have Bird freed, petitioning the Governor and Executive Council for a pardon. A pardon hearing was granted on Jan. 19.
On Tuesday, Gov. John Lynch and the Executive Council convened a pardon hearing, listening to testimony from Bird and his supporters as well as representatives for the Carroll County Attorney's office.
Bird said that night he got a call from his niece that Harris was coming to the house, "saying she was suspicious and looks in windows." He said Harris went on the property and started asking about the property next door that had been owned by his brother-in-law.
"She started asking me who I was and I just wasn't interested," Bird said. "She was saying something about property for sale.
Bird said Harris had been told not to go to the property. Due to his physical condition, he did not want to get into a confrontation and said he felt emotionally threatened by Harris.
Bird said it is his practice never to leave the house without a gun on him, a practice stemming from an incident in November of 2005 when his brother-in-law took a shot at him as well as previous incidents involving family members.
However, he said will not bring a loaded gun into the house.
Bird said Harris was there for between three to four minutes before leaving, saying she was 15 feet away at one point before going to her vehicle. He said she had gotten in her car and was looking at him from the vehicle. Bird said he checked his gun to make sure the chamber was clear before entering the house with no thought as to whether Harris would be able to see it.
Harris reported that Bird had jumped from the porch and waved the gun at her. Bird said he did not brandish the weapon and the gun remained in its holster during the time he spoke with Harris. A month before he underwent surgery for a serious injury. The council produced a doctor's letter, saying Bird's surgery left him with 38 staples and 250 stitches. When asked, Bird said he was in much pain that day and would not have been able to jump off the porch as Harris said he did.
The police arrived five minutes later and asked Bird a few questions, including if he had a firearm.
"I believe I may have overreacted and may have owed her an apology," Bird said.
About a day later, the police visited his house to notify him of the charges Harris filed.
Bird did not testify in court, but said he made a statement to police that he thought would be sufficient.
He also addressed a previous incident involving a gun in 2002. He said he was at a barbeque with many people after his brother-in-law passed away and had been drinking. Someone suggested doing target practice on the priority, during which a bullet went astray and went into a nearby home. The police were called and Bird said he took responsibility for the incident, though it was not known whose bullet went into the house.
In 1985 he was arrested for resisting arrest. Bird said that took place following a motorcycle accident in which he sustained serious injuries and was charged for leaving the scene when an officer tried to stop him. "I've come a long way since then," Bird said.
Bird was charged with reckless conduct and criminal threatening, later acquitted of the reckless conduct charge but convicted of criminal threatening.
Carroll County Attorney Tom Dewhurst testified on aspects of the case, saying former County Attorney Robin Gordon managed the case at the time but he has extensively reviewed the matter.
Councilor Ray Wieczorek asked Dewhurst if research had been done into Harris' background for the trial and if it had been inquired as to how she was going to pay for the property. Dewhurst said Harris would pursue grant funding for the project. Wieczorek said Harris had been in trouble for alleged cruelty to animals where 47 animals were found on her property.
"If it's a character witness who does not have any good character, I don't know how you can assume a lot of honesty in court," Wieczorek said.
Dewhurst said such was her testimony at the time and there was no reason to believe she had not been truthful. Her story "jived" with what she told the police, though he said he could not speak for the previous county attorney.
"There was nothing the prosecution offered that would suggest Miss Harris was untruthful," Dewhurst said.
Dewhurst said the jury did visit the area of Bird's house and found it would have been easy to get turned around. When asked about the 48-foot trailer Harris was apparently told she should not go past, Dewhurst said he did not have a photo of that area.
Melissa Smith, a victim's advocate for the Carroll County Attorney's office said she worked with Harris during the case. She read a statement on her behalf saying Harris did not attend the meeting as she feared for her safety.
"I did nothing wrong yet I feel I am being persecuted," the statement read.
The statement said that if Bird was pardoned, then the jury that convicted him should be discredited. According to the statement Harris' life is "messy" and "Most of the 'mess' happened after Mr. Bird waved his gun at me."
The statement said Bird has changed his statement and did not testify in court because he did indeed wave the gun.
"I believe she feels terrorized," Smith said.
Attorney Mark Sisti said Bird's statement to the police and Harris' testimony was believed to be sufficient for the trial. The trial seemed to be going smoothly up until near the end when it was discussed whether or not Bird should testify.
"Ward Bird and I believed in the system and we believed the jury would have caught on," Sisti said.
Sisti said the defense was limited in what it could present on Harris' background, saying they were allowed to present her conviction on bad checks, but there was more that could not be presented.
The first trial resulted in a mistrial because of, according to Sisti, impropriety on the part of a police officer.
Sisti said Harris changed her statements multiple times on the details of the incident.
It was discussed later in the trial whether Bird should testify and the decision was made for him not to.
"Whenever you place a witness on the stand, you're taking a chance," Sisti said.
Sisti described the case as the greatest miscarriage of justice he has ever seen. Sisti said when the mandatory minimum sentences were put in place, he said it was unlikely lawmakers knew a case like this could come up.
Leon Parker, President of New Hampshire Business Sales, said he compiled a report on Harris.
"I consider it totally outrageous that anybody would be convicted on the basis of testimony from Christine Harris," Parker said, questioning why no one challenged her testimony. "It seems like people took what she said at face value."
Parker said Harris asked to look at properties worth between $385,000 and $5 million and did not provide information that she was able to afford such properties. He read a scathing letter Harris wrote criticizing brokers in the company and saying she could not complete transactions because of them. Parker said other agents were advised not to show her any properties.
Rev. Kevin Van Brunt said he ahs been visiting Bird at least once a week in prison. He said he worked with him in Boy Scouts and other community activities.
"Ward is a dedicated and trustworthy individual and puts others before himself," Van Brunt said.
Van Brunt said Bird told him he does not feel anger toward Harris and told him how he helped a young man in prison take steps to overcome drug addiction. Van Brunt said he has noticed the strain the past 76 days has had on Bird.
Richard Kinsman, Bird's first cousin once removed, said he contacted Bird for information about gun safety as part of his work as a social worker in Maine. Kinsman said he used the information Bird gave him in situations with his clients where guns were involved.
Virginia Bird recalled when they received the letter saying the Supreme Court upheld her husband's conviction and he was to surrender himself.
"When we got the letter in the mail, we thought it was the end of the road," Virginia Bird said.
Virginia Bird said she was in the house at the time of the incident and Harris and her husband are the only two people that know what happened.
"It just seemed like it was a one-sided investigation of my husband," she said.
Virginia Bird said her husband was offered two plea options, one was to plead to a misdemeanor and the second involved two year's probation. She said he refused both.
At the end of the hearing Bird made one final statement.
"As God is my witness and on the honor of my family and friends in this room today, I did not point or wave a gun at Christine Harris," Bird said.
The Executive Council was scheduled to meet again on Wednesday to discuss Bird's case.