FARGO — When long-time defense lawyer and former police officer Mark Friese first heard about a man being accused of firing a gun at police during an incident outside of a downtown Fargo hotel in 2019, he didn't pay much attention to the case.
When he heard that Henry Aiken would be defending himself against charges that included attempted murder, a charge that carried a potential sentence of life in prison, his curiosity increased.
"The general assumption I think for most people is: if you represent yourself, the outcome is not going to be good. So, I probably had that thought as well," Friese said.
When a Cass County District Court jury acquitted Aiken of attempted murder and aggravated assault last week, Friese took even more interest in the case to the point he checked out stories about the trial and spoke with people around the courthouse about it.
"He (Aiken) did a commendable job," Friese said, noting that Aiken apparently was able to communicate to jurors weaknesses he saw in the prosecution's version of what happened during the incident on Nov. 15, 2019, that played out in front of the Radisson Hotel.
Prosecutors claimed Aiken fired a gun toward a Fargo officer and a short while later a Fargo police sergeant accidentally shot himself in the hand while taking a barrel cap off a rifle.
Prosecutors also alleged Aiken fired twice into the hotel window following the accidental gunshot by police; a total of four gunshots in all.
Aiken admitted to firing two shots into the hotel window, but adamantly maintained he did not shoot at police.
Near the end of the trial, Aiken played a video for jurors that captured sounds of gunfire and police radio communication during the incident, which lasted less than 20 minutes from the time a hotel guest called 911 to report a man with a gun and the time police arrested Aiken in the hotel lobby.
On the video, only two gunshots are actually heard and police make reference to a third.
Under questioning by Aiken, a police detective said he did not know why one of three shots authorities believe Aiken fired could not be heard on the recording.
Praise for jury system
"It sounded to me like the evidence didn't support the allegations; there was this notion of a third shot that wasn't supported by the physical evidence, wasn't heard on the recordings, wasn't found from the subsequent investigation. So, I'm not at all surprised that the jury found there was a doubt," Friese said.
Friese said Aiken deserves points for convincing the jury to acquit him of the most serious charges he faced — Aiken was convicted of several other charges — but Friese added he doesn't believe many in the legal community were "over-the-top amazed that a pro se defendant won a case. It happens from time to time."
Friese said what he is hearing from those in the legal world is that the case underscores the importance of the jury system.
"The comments are: 'This is why we have jury systems. This is why we allow juries to make decisions instead of prosecutors. This is kind of the whole basis of our system," Friese said.
He added that Aiken's forthrightness in owning up to some wrongdoing probably earned him points with jurors.
"Going in and admitting the conduct that constituted an offense was a really good idea, tactically. That is what a lawyer likely would have recommended as well. So, I think his defense was insightfully presented," Friese said.
Aiken fired a number of attorneys before representing himself during trial, something Friese said could have resulted in disaster.
"That he came across so well to the jury and that the jury credited his arguments in light of the fact he wasn't able to get along with his lawyers is probably the most surprising part of it," Friese said, noting that from what he has heard of the trial Aiken benefitted from assistance from prosecutors when it came to technical things like the presenting of evidence.
And, Friese said, from the perspective of the defendant it also didn't hurt that Judge John Irby was the presiding judge.
"He's probably one of the most patient judges in the state," Friese said of Irby, adding that the judge is "going to give everyone a fair shake in the courtroom."
At the conclusion of the trial last week, the jury found Aiken guilty of terrorizing and reckless endangerment.
About midway through the trial, Aiken pleaded guilty to a charge of being a felon in possession of a firearm in connection with a conviction in Williams County several years ago involving a situation in which Aiken fired a gun at a nursing home in Williston.
Aiken is to be sentenced on the Cass County charges on Nov. 29, after a pre-sentence investigation is completed. He has applied for a public defender to assist with the sentencing process.