The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit has affirmed the conviction of Harold Henthorn, who authorities say killed his second wife, Dr. Toni Henthorn, by pushing her off Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park in 2012. In so doing, the jurists unanimously rejected Henthorn's argument that the original court biased the jury against him by allowing testimony about the suspicious death of Henthorn's first wife, Lynn, and a serious accident suffered by Toni the year before her death.
As we've reported, a request for order filed by U.S. Attorney John Walsh, who was placed in charge of prosecuting the case because Rocky Mountain National Park is federal land, stated, "On September 29, 2012, Harold Henthorn's wife Toni Henthorn fell to her death with Harold Henthorn as the only witness, in a remote location in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado." Walsh added that "investigation has revealed there are three $1.5 million life insurance policies on Toni Henthorn, two of which are in trusts, and one in which Harold Henthorn is the sole beneficiary."
This wasn't the only circumstance that Walsh saw as suspicious. In the document, he implied that Harold was living off Toni, a respected ophthalmologist, while conducting a mysterious double life. Here's a key passage:
Harold Henthorn travels frequently, even weekly, allegedly for work. However, there is no indication that he has actual clients. He has no business in his name, no partners able to be located by law enforcement to date, and no one interviewed to date knows who his clients are or were, yet he told investigators he was financially secure, and he was a fundraiser for nonprofits like churches and hospitals. At his wife's funeral witnesses told investigators there were no attendees from Harold Henthorn's work and witnesses interviewed by investigators revealed no one actually knew what his business was called, or any of his projects or clients.
Was Henthorn capable of murder? Walsh floated that possibility by pointing out that "in 1995, Harold Henthorn's prior wife" — Lynn Henthorn — "died from injuries sustained from being crushed by a car while he was changing a tire in a remote location. The car allegedly came off the jack as he was throwing the tire in the trunk, crushing his wife, who was under the car for unknown reasons. There were no witnesses other than Harold Henthorn, and a life insurance policy on her had been taken out several months prior."
While Lynn's death was initially deemed a tragic accident, Douglas County investigators reopened the case in the fall of 2014.
Meanwhile, Walsh cited what could have been another attempt by Harold to kill Toni in a way that would have seemed accidental. He wrote:
In early September or late August of 2011, a beam hit Toni Henthorn on her head while working on her cabin with Harold Henthorn, fracturing her vertebrae. The beam fell off the porch where Harold Henthorn was working, after he called her to come help him. Toni Henthorn told her mother, "If I hadn't bent down after I walked outside, the beam would have killed me." This is another accident in which Harold Henthorn was the only other witness.
At Henthorn's 2015 trial, the prosecution was allowed to introduce information about both of the prior incidents, and after Henthorn was convicted and sentenced to life in prison during a hearing in which he stated, "I did not kill Toni," he appealed for reasons alluded to in the introductory section of the 10th Circuit's ruling, which is accessible below.
"This case presents us with the difficult issue of whether a district court presiding over a murder trial abused its discretion in admitting evidence of prior, similar incidents, including whether the defendant killed his second wife in circumstances similar to those that led to the death of his first wife," the document states, adding, "We affirm. The district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting prior similar conduct. The court fully explained, and we agree, that the evidence was properly admitted under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(b), was relevant, and was not substantially outweighed by unfair prejudice."
The 10th Circuit acknowledge that "evidence of crimes, wrongs, or other acts is prohibited under the Federal Rules of Evidence when used 'to prove a person’s character in order to show that on a particular occasion the person acted in accordance with the character.'" But the passage goes on to note that "such evidence is permitted, however, 'for another purpose, such as proving motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake, or lack of accident.'"
The ruling spends the majority of its pages outlining why information about Lynn's death and Toni's 2011 accident fall into the latter categories, in part because the circumstances share so much in common.
"Each incident, including Toni’s death, occurred in a remote location which impeded communications, delayed emergency responders, and reduced the likelihood of accidental witnesses," the ruling allows. "Indeed, Henthorn was always the only witness at the time of injury. And in the aftermath of each incident, Henthorn told inconsistent stories about what happened. Although there is a seventeen-year gap between his first wife’s death and Toni’s, the temporal distance is not per se disqualifying, and does not overshadow the marked similarities between the incidents. Henthorn’s first wife, Lynn, died after thirteen years of marriage to Henthorn. His second wife, Toni, died after twelve years of marriage. Henthorn lied about the applicable life insurance policies and collected significant sums of life insurance proceeds from each death. Over their respective family’s objections, he also had each woman’s body quickly cremated and spread their ashes at the same spot on Red Mountain near Ouray, Colorado."
In conclusion, the court determined that the evidence to which Henthorn objected was relevant and its "probative value...was not substantially outweighed by its potential for unfair prejudice."
Click to view the U.S. Court of Appeals' Harold Henthorn ruling.
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