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A jury has found Ronald Fowler guilty of attempted murder and two other charges.
During closing arguments in Fowler’s trial March 13, the jury heard two very different versions of the alleged crime.
Never in dispute was that on the afternoon of Oct. 14, 2017, Fowler shot his neighbour George Parent near Two Mile with a .38 snub-nose revolver. Fowler was tried on three charges: attempted murder, aggravated assault with a weapon causing bodily harm, and discharging a firearm with intent to endanger the life of another person.
In opening his summation, Joseph McCarthy, counsel for the defence, conceded that his client had shot George Parent, that he intended to do so, that Parent’s injuries were caused by the shooting and that those injuries were “grievous indeed.”
The only issue, McCarthy said, was whether Fowler shot Parent in self-defence.
Because there were no independent witnesses to the actual shooting, the task before the jury basically boiled down to who, Parent or Fowler, told the more credible story.
Both lawyers agreed that the instigating incident for what amounted to a longstanding feud between the two neighbours was a 2014 arrangement between Fowler and the victim’s brother Louis Parent. The deal was that Fowler, Louis and another friend would clean out a barn on the shared property of the Parent brothers, sell the steel from a bunch of old farm implements and split the proceeds.
When George found out, he put an end to the arrangement taking the steel for himself. Fowler testified he went to George’s home and confronted him about it. When George told him to “fuck off,” Fowler pulled out his phone and called the highways contractor telling them George was going to be ripping up the road hauling the steel away.
Fowler said at that point George threatened him with the words “I’ll bury you,” which, the accused testified, he took to mean the victim would kill him.
On the witness stand, George denied making that threat.
McCarthy told a story of a man besieged by constant harassment by a larger, more physically capable and belligerent bully citing weekly or more frequent trips George would make through Fowler’s property on Six Mile Road, which cuts through the farm. During those trips, the defendant said, George would drive across his lawn and chase his horses.
According to the defence, the harassing behaviour escalated after a May 2017 confrontation in which Fowler, seeing George pass through with a load of wood in a trailer, chased him down and cut him off to take a picture of the load with the intention of reporting George to forestry officials. Counsel referred to this as “the backhoe incident” because Fowler boxed George in near where Darryl West, who also testified for the Crown, was working on Six Mile Road with a backhoe.
A verbal altercation led to George grabbing Fowler by the throat and choking him. The two men’s stories, and that of West, largely line up, except on the critical points that George choked Fowler to the point of unconsciousness causing him to defecate, and that at the time George grabbed Fowler, the defendant had a camera up at his face trying to take a picture of the load.
After that, Fowler said, George made more frequent trips through the property sometimes doing donuts and ripping up the lawn and on a couple of occasions parking at the end of the drive and staring up at Fowler’s house.
McCarthy said this put his client in a state of terror, causing him to take self-protective measures such as installing surveillance cameras, keeping baseball bats near the entrances to his home and carrying a revolver with him when he was out.
George admitted to driving on the lawn, but not harassing the horses, doing donuts or staring up at the house.
In his closing for the Crown, Paul Backhouse turned the harassment around, suggesting it was Fowler who instigated both the barn confrontation and backhoe incident and engaged in a prolonged series of provocations. He pointed to the phone call reporting George to the highways contractor and emails between Fowler and forestry officials reporting George’s wood harvesting activities as an indication of an ongoing vendetta.
Backhouse told the jury he did not expect them to condone George’s assault on Folwer or consider it a measured response to Fowler’s actions, but asked them to consider how George must have felt having his neighbour constantly taking pictures of him and snitching on him.
On the shooting itself the two stories diverge significantly.
Fowler testified he was down near the road looking for something he lost when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed George had snuck up on him. When he looked up, he said, George was pointing a long gun at him and said something to the effect of “I’ve got you now, you little asshole.”
According to the defence, Fowler pulled his pistol and fired twice. The first bullet, McCarthy said, grazed George’s hand, which was cupping the gun, and landed in his chest. The second hit his elbow.
The Crown maintains Fowler, having never gotten over George getting the better of him in the backhoe incident, saw his opportunity to get revenge when George stopped that day, ambushed him and shot three times.
George testified he had stopped his ATV to pick up a length of rope he had noticed near a bunch of railroad ties. When he looked up, he said, Fowler was running toward him with the pistol in both hands. The accused stopped, assumed a weaver stance — described as “an aggressive, weight-forward stance” and evidence of an experienced marksman, according to the Crown — fired one bullet into George’s chest, paused, then shot two more times.
The pause, Backhouse theorized, indicates Fowler intended the initial centre-mass shot to take George down. When it didn’t, because it hit George’s wallet and cell phone, he fired off two more shots causing the injuries to the hand and elbow. The Crown pointed out Fowler had been a competition-level shooter in arguing the first shot to the chest was intended to be a kill shot.
McCarthy claims the wounds to George’s chest and hand were caused by the first of two bullets. He used a rifle to demonstrate how the injuries could only have been caused if George was indeed pointing a gun at the accused.
Backhouse pointed to attempted recreations during the trial of how George was allegedly standing and holding the gun, which neither George nor Fowler could demonstrate effectively to account for the injuries. He said only McCarthy was able to come up with a possible scenario that worked and it did not fit the physical evidence.
“George did not point a gun that day,” Backhouse concluded.
The prosecutor focused on Fowler’s after-the-fact conduct as evidence the accused had not acted in self-defence. He cited the fact that Fowler admitted to hiding the gun and later going back to retrieve it and bury it.
Backhouse also noted the accused had not contacted anyone about the shooting. Why, he asked, if Fowler believed the shooting was justified, would he not report it.
Both attorneys attempted to discredit the other’s primary witness pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions in their testimony.
For his part, McCarthy used examples such as that George had said he had his hunting licence in his wallet, but did not; that at first he had said he always drove on the lawn, but later recanted and said it was only sometimes; and that George had said Fowler did not have his camera up to his face during the backhoe incident, which, counsel said, was contradicted by a photo entered into evidence.
Furthermore, defence counsel described George’s performance on the witness stand as evasive, argumentative, truculent and bad-tempered. He called the witness “an admitted liar.”
Similarly, the Crown painted Fowler as a liar, based primarily on the fact the accused had lied about owning prohibited firearms and had conducted a sham transaction in order to keep them after he was convicted of careless discharge of a firearm some years ago.
What else was he willing to lie about to keep himself out of trouble, Backhouse asked. He pointed out that Fowler had said he didn’t hear George sneak up on him on a gas-powered ATV, but was able to hear him say, “I’ve got you now…”; and that he had said he was terrified of George, but admitted to provoking him by, for example, stringing a wire across the road.
The Crown focused on Fowler’s after-the-fact conduct as proof the accused did not believe the shooting was justified. This included hiding the gun, not immediately as in a panic, but later, and that he moved it later still; that he hadn’t reported the shooting despite testifying he was afraid that George might come back to “finish me off”; and that when he talked to Louis Parent hours after the shooting, he had acted as if nothing had happened.
In his charge to the jurors Thursday morning, Justice David Masuhara cautioned them not to put too much weight on the demeanor of witnesses as testifying in a court is an uncommon experience for most people and everyone reacts differently to it.
He also warned them that they must ignore any inference that Fowler was motivated to lie because he was facing very serious charges as that would be a violation of his constitutional rights.
In general terms, Masuhara explained each of the charges, the essential elements the Crown must prove for each, what beyond a reasonable doubt means and the legal definition of self-defence.
He said if they determined Fowler acted in self-defence that they must acquit him on all counts. If, however, they found it was not self-defence, they must be satisfied the Crown had proved beyond a reasonable doubt on each individual charge that he was guilty.
The jury deliberated for approximately eight hours in total over two days before returning the verdict of guilty on all three counts.
“Obviously, Mr. Fowler disagrees with the verdict, but accepts it,” McCarthy said. “It is my expectation we will be attempting to appeal.”
Backhouse declined to comment.
March 25 has been set for a hearing to select a sentencing date.