A Havre man’s claims of self-defense came to naught Thursday when a jury found him guilty of a felony charge of negligent endangerment for striking a man outside of a Havre bar.
The jury after a three-day trial was in the jury room for 2 hours, 52 minutes, before finding Ken Erickson, born in 1961, guilty of the alternative charge.
Judge Dan Boucher scheduled Erickson’s sentencing hearing for April 1.
The jury found Erickson not guilty of the primary charge, aggravated assault, which alleges the defendant intentionally caused, or caused apprehension of, serious bodily injury.
The alternative charge of which they convicted him says the defendant knowingly engaged in conduct with a high probability of causing death or serious bodily injury.
The prosecution also offered a lesser offense of misdemeanor assault that was included in the felony assault offense, which was not considered after the jury convicted Erickson of the felony.
Erickson was charged after he struck Gene Johnson of Big Sandy the night of April 23, 2011, in the parking lot of the Golden Spike. Johnson was knocked unconscious and fell, suffering a skull fracture when his head struck the pavement. He was flown to Great Falls for surgery and spent a week in intensive care, and still suffers debilitation from brain damage.
Erickson said from the start that he was acting in self defense, that Johnson started the altercation, calling him foul names and pushing him in the chest, and he punched Johnson just to try to get him away.
“My intent wasn’t to hurt him … my intent was to get this guy off of me,” Erickson testified Thursday.
His attorney, Kenneth Olson, said the jurors had to look at two parts of the defense — one that, as required by state law as an element for aggravated assault or felony criminal endangerment, the defendant had to purposely or knowingly cause the injury or that his actions were likely to cause the injury. Erickson had no idea that one “quick little jab” could lead to the injuries it did, Olson said.
But, even for the included misdemeanor charge of assault, Erickson was justified in throwing that punch, Olson said.
He said everyone, including Erickson, is sympathetic about Johnson’s injury, “But, in the final analysis, he caused the whole thing to happen. …
“Ken Erickson told the guy to leave him alone … ,” Olson said. “He only did what the law gives him the right to do. He exercised the legal right to defend himself.”
But Hill County Attorney Gina Dahl, in her closing statements, said Erickson’s actions did not match his testimony. If he was acting in self defense, she asked, why did he flee the scene and why did he lie to the officer he first spoke to? His actions show someone who is concerned with what will happen to himself, not concern for the victim, Dahl said.
A witness reported hearing Erickson say he was going to knock Johnson out, and then he struck Johnson, she said.
“When you punch somebody, you know there is a high probability you’re going to hurt them … ,” Dahl said. “Because the harm didn’t turn out to be what he thought it was going to be that does not absolve him (from what he did).”
The man injured that night also returned to the stand Thursday.
Johnson spoke haltingly and appeared to have some difficulty following some questions the attorneys asked during his testimony,
He said that, although he later found out he was incorrect, on April 23, 2011, he believed Erickson had turned him over to the police, leading to the police charging him with driving under the influence of intoxicants. Johnson said he was talking to Erickson that night to find out why he had called the police.
Johnson said he had no intent of getting into a fight with Erickson that night.
Witnesses — including Erickson — gave conflicting testimony over how the incident occurred.
Numerous prosecution witnesses said Erickson was the aggressive one during the altercation that night, while Johnson appeared laid-back, shrugging his shoulders, with some testifying he had his hands at his sides or even in his pockets when Erickson punched him.
Defense witnesses testified that Johnson had for a couple of weeks said he was going to “kick Erickson’s ass” over his belief that Erickson had reported him to the police, Olson said in his closing statement.
Erickson testified Thursday that Johnson approached him in the bar parking lot and immediately became aggressive, including shoving him.
Some witnesses testified, however, that Erickson approached Johnson, with some saying he shoved Johnson first and some saying they never saw Johnson shove Erickson.
But Erickson testified that Johnson started the confrontation, and that he was afraid the much-bigger man would assault him.
“Mr. Johnson caused me to throw that punch,” he said during his testimony Thursday.
He testified that he “never dreamed” the injuries Johnson suffered could have happened with one punch.
Erickson testified that he immediately went to Johnson’s aid, and made the 911 call asking for help.
Erickson said he was genuinely concerned for Johnson’s health, and that he still was when he called police, asking them how Johnson was when he spoke to them.
But Dahl said his actions were more consistent with someone concerned with himself, not the victim, including his leaving the scene without talking to police and not telling the officer when he first contacted police what actually happened.
If he acted in self defense, that should have been one of the first things he talked about, she said.
Erickson said he initiated contact with police to let them know he was a party in the incident. He also testified that he believed he made it clear that he acted in self defense, even though he at first characterized the incident as Johnson tripping and falling and hitting his head after Erickson shoved him, not struck him.
In his next conversation with police, Erickson told them that he had struck Johnson.
Erickson testified that after the incident he was very confused, in shock, about what had happened.