'God was my attorney': Acting as own lawyer, hotel shooter beats attempted murder charge
Henry Aiken, 55, admitted to firing a gun into a window at the downtown Fargo Radisson in November 2019 but disputed the police claim that he fired at officers as well.
FARGO — Shortly after jurors found him not guilty of attempted murder and aggravated assault charges, Henry Aiken said in an interview at the Cass County Jail on Monday afternoon, Oct. 4, that he was grateful.
"I appreciate the jury being honest and not looking at the uniform," Aiken said, referring to the orange clothing the Cass County Jail provided him, which he wore during his trial last week on charges stemming from a shooting at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Fargo on Nov. 15, 2019.
"It's not about what you've got on, it's about the truth," Aiken said, paraphrasing something Judge John Irby said at the beginning of Aiken's trial in Cass County District Court on charges of attempted murder, aggravated assault, terrorizing, reckless endangerment and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Aiken, who represented himself during the trial and says God was his standby counsel, was found guilty by the jury on the terrorizing and reckless endangerment charges. Aiken pleaded guilty to the felon in possession of a firearm charge about midway through his trial.
Prosecutors alleged Aiken, 55, fired a gun at a Fargo police officer outside the Radisson Hotel before firing two shots into a hotel window.
During his trial last week, Aiken denied firing at police but admitted firing two shots into a hotel window.
At one point, Aiken played for jurors a video that captured ambient sounds from the area of the hotel, as well as police radio transmissions.
Although police and prosecutors maintained that Aiken fired three shots during the incident, only two shots police ascribed to Aiken could be heard on the recording, which Aiken said were the two shots he fired into the hotel window.
A police detective said he could not account for why one of three shots they claim Aiken fired could not be heard on the recording.
Aiken said in the jail interview that the question of how many shots were fired during the incident outside the hotel may have played a big part in why jurors acquitted him of the two most serious charges he faced, including the attempted murder charge, which carried a potential maximum penalty of life in prison.
Aiken said he was "really happy" when jurors returned the not guilty verdicts, stating he really wasn't alone during the trial.
"I didn't do anything, believe me. God was my attorney," Aiken said.
As for his convictions on the other charges, Aiken said he is OK with the outcome because he said they fit what his conduct was that day in 2019.
Aiken said in planning his approach to challenging the state's case he relied on a number of legal libraries, including the University of Jamestown and the North Dakota Supreme Court.
"These places will help you if you're willing to help yourself," he said.
Assistant Cass County State's Attorney Kate Naumann, one of two prosecutors representing the state during last week's trial, said after the trial that in her experience it was exceptional to see a defendant represent himself against charges as weighty as those Aiken faced.
"It's an unusual situation, certainly, for a case this serious," Naumann said.
Asked if the not guilty verdicts the jury returned surprised her, Naumann said: "Whenever you take a case to trial you're rolling the dice, no matter what."
She added that Aiken "knew all of the evidence very well."
Mastering the evidence
Aiken told jurors several times during the trial that he had spent much of the last two years in jail poring over the evidence against him, particularly the video he played at the end of the trial that provided an audio timeline of the gunshots involved.
"I've watched the video for months. I sleep with it," Aiken said.
At another point in the trial, Aiken told jurors, "I watched these videos for hours."
Aiken, who did not take the stand in his own defense, used an electronic tablet as he organized his questions for prosecution witnesses.
In having certain videos and audio recordings played for the jury, Aiken asked for and received assistance from Naumann and her fellow prosecutor, Renata Selzer.
Aiken stressed to jurors evidence that revealed sometimes conflicting information about what direction police said Aiken may have fired his gun.
On the witness stand, Fargo police officer Joseph Vegel said that after he and a fellow officer, Sgt. Matt Ysteboe, arrived at the hotel on a report of a man with a gun they encountered Aiken, who he said was yelling and waving a handgun around that featured a green laser sight.
Vegel said when he ordered Aiken to drop the gun Aiken pointed the gun at him and fired.
"I believe he fired at me and Sgt. Ysteboe," Vegel said, adding he also heard a whizzing sound he believed to be the sound of a bullet passing by.
In his comments to the jury, Aiken never strayed from his passionate assertion that he never fired at police during the incident at the hotel.
"I didn't shoot at no officers," Aiken said during his closing argument, during which he played a surveillance video on a tablet he held up for jurors to see.
The video showed a police officer following the shooting who was searching for evidence west of the Radisson Hotel. Aiken asked jurors to ask themselves why police were looking to the west for evidence when police allege he fired in the direction of officers who were north of the entrance to the hotel.
A sentencing hearing for Aiken will be held after a pre-sentence investigation is completed.