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Trial raises question: Hunting accident or reckless homicide?

By Matt Bean
Court TV

Michael Berseth
Michael Berseth

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(Court TV) -- In the final, frenzied days of the 2002 Wisconsin deer season, hunter Michael Berseth leveled his muzzle-loading rifle at what he thought was the white fleck of a deer's tail moving through the brush. 

He pulled the trigger, and hit his mark. But although Berseth's aim was true, his target was not: Berseth's "deer" tail was actually a white scarf worn by his neighbor, Deborah Prasnicki.

Prasnicki, 47, was out for a walk with her two dogs when Berseth's bullet struck her in the head, killing her. After a lengthy investigation, the hunter will have to answer for her death in a trial beginning Tuesday.

Prosecutors say Berseth, 44, an experienced hunter who had hunted the area before and lived just a half mile away, should have known better. He is charged with second-degree reckless homicide, and could spend a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted.

The .50 caliber muzzle-loading rifle Berseth wielded on December 1, 2001, had its heyday more than 100 years ago. But Berseth and his two hunting buddies were taking advantage of an exclusive hunting session that Wisconsin and many other states offer to hunters who use so-called "frontloaders."

Muzzle-loaders are akin to Civil War-era rifles. Instead of loading a self-contained bullet with the ignition, charge, and bullet all in one, muzzle-loading guns require the hunter to load the bullet down the barrel of the gun, and then ignite the propulsive charge by lighting a collection of black powder connected to the side of the gun. 

Berseth had been using his muzzle-loader for about three years the day he went hunting with his two friends for deer. According to a criminal complaint, the three men headed out around 2 p.m., and scouted the area by walking down a logging road running through the brush.

After a day spent wrapping Christmas presents, Prasnicki headed with her two dogs, Andy and Poochie, for a walk. The teacher's aide at a local high school was on the same path Berseth had reportedly used to scout terrain when the hunter's bullet hit her head.  It was about 4:44 p.m.

Hunting deaths involving muzzle-loading rifles are rare. According to a report by the International Hunter Education Association, only seven people died in the U.S. in 2000 as a result of muzzle-loaded bullets, and five of the deaths were self-inflicted.

But a total of 91 people died and 835 more were injured during U.S. hunting accidents in 2000, casualties some groups see as avoidable.

Rex Stuart, president of the Non-Hunter's Rights Coalition, is worried that the buffer zone between hunting zones and residential and nature preserve areas are being blurred by encroaching hunters.

"If there's a deer there, they really don't think what's behind the deer," said Stuart.  "It's like a free-for-all, really."

John Robbins, a spokesperson with the National Rifle Association, declined to comment on the specifics of Berseth's case, but emphasized the organization's cardinal rules of hunting, including the need to make certain the target is actually what it appears to be.

"Animals aren't the only ones who suffer when hunters shoot first and ask questions later," said Stephanie Boyles, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which is following the case.

Rules and guidelines notwithstanding, Prasnicki's death was not the first time a bystander has been caught by a bullet. In November 2002, a 16-year-old girl was shot in the chest -- the bullet narrowly missed her heart -- while walking near the Appalachian Trail in Gainesville, Georgia.

An Ontonagon, Michigan, woman was walking her dogs through a wooded area frequented by hunters when she was fatally shot in 1992. 

And in 1988, a Bangor, Maine, woman, Karen Wood, was bringing the laundry in from her yard when she was shot and killed. The hunter, Donald Rogerson, said he mistook her white mittens for the tail of a deer.  Rogerson was acquitted of manslaughter in 1990, but the public debate spurred Maine to pass a "target identification" law in 1991 to hold hunters accountable for itchy trigger fingers.

Prosecutor Rachael Anderson argued in preliminary hearings that Berseth, who lived a half mile away from the site of the shooting and had hunted the area before, knew he was shooting toward a road and should have been more careful. Anderson did not return calls to comment on the case.

According to Wisconsin hunting accident statistics, Prasnicki's death came during one of the bloodiest hunting seasons in recent history.

Stuart, the Non-Hunter Coalition president, understands that many may hunt for sport, or for food.  But it is the lack of responsibility, he says, that makes the sport deadly.

"It's really sad," said Hunter.  "It used to be they were just happy walking in the woods.  Now they'll just shoot at anything that comes along."

Consider some of the accidents reported, by law, to the Wisconsin department of natural resources:

• "Victim was walking along field edge still hunting turkeys," reads one report.  "Shooter thought victim was "struting" [sic] and also thought he saw some red.  Shooter shot victim at a distance of 142 feet."

• "Shooter saw what he thought was a gray squirrel and shot.  Gray squirrel was victim's hat. After victim was shot he then shoots himself in the foot."

• "Victim placed a .20 gauge shell in a .12 gauge firearm.  Then discharged a .12 gauge behind the .20 and barrel blew up."

Berseth's attorney, Richard L. Wachowski, did not return phone calls.

The jury that will decide Berseth's fate will have the option of finding him guilty of the lesser included charge of negligent homicide.

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