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Published August 31, 2011, 03:43 PM

Fairbanks testifies in Deputy Dewey murder trial

CROOKSTON - Thomas Fairbanks took the stand in his own defense Tuesday in his murder trial, admitting he was responsible - and no one else - for shooting Mahnomen County Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Dewey.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Associated Press

CROOKSTON - Thomas Fairbanks took the stand in his own defense Tuesday in his murder trial, admitting he was responsible - and no one else - for shooting Mahnomen County Sheriff's Deputy Christopher Dewey. But he had no intent to shoot him, was drunk and on drugs and feared for his own life, Fairbanks said under questioning from his attorney, Jim Austad.

He can remember only parts of that February day in 2009 after hours of drinking with Daniel Vernier, Fairbanks said.

A long night ended just before dawn Feb. 18 with Fairbanks and Vernier standing on the front step of Amanda Helms' home - just across the street from his own trailer home - knocking on her door, seeking liquor and a ride, Fairbanks said. Helms called 911, one of several people who had heard shots fired that early morning, and Dewey and his partner, Deputy Chad Peterson, responded.

Fairbanks turned around and saw Dewey walking up Helms' driveway. He saw Vernier "take a swing" at Dewey, who ducked and moved closer, said Fairbanks, who had in his jeans pocket the 9-mm handgun that he had already fired several times into the air and inside his home.

"Deputy Dewey went for his gun. I had a gun in my hand," Fairbanks said in his quiet, almost monotone voice in the quiet court room. "Then, there were gunshots fired and an officer down."

Fairbanks is charged with first-degree murder in the Feb. 18, 2009, shooting of Dewey, who died Aug. 9, 2010, in hospice after 18 months of medical treatment and rehabilitation failed to stop his decline.

Fairbanks also faces several charges of assault on law enforcement officers for allegedly firing toward them from his home during the nine-hour standoff after Dewey was shot. He also faces other lesser charges.

Fairbanks couldn't remember how many shots he fired or where he aimed, Fairbanks said.

"I just remember being in fear for my life, 'cause Dewey was going for his gun," he said. "I just made the wrong choice."

He started out the night before taking Vicodin and Oxycodone, prescription painkillers, and drinking, Fairbanks said. He drank from about 10 p.m. Feb. 17 until the time of the shooting.

Under Austad's questions, Fairbanks admitted he shot Dewey.

"It seems you remember pulling the trigger," Austad offered.

"It all happened so fast, I can't really say ... it happened within seconds. ... It doesn't take long to ruin your life."

Fairbanks, who has been stoic during the trial that began Aug. 1, his voice quivering a little, said: "It should never have happened … two families have to suffer through it."

Fairbanks was the last of about a dozen witnessed called by the defense before it rested Tuesday. The prosecution rested its case earlier Tuesday afternoon, after calling 47 witnesses over six and a half days of testimony.

Eric Schieferdecker, one of two prosecutors from the state attorney general's office, went at Fairbanks with a barely veiled anger that hadn't been seen before in this trial, picking up on the defendant's apparent sympathy for the families involved.

"Would you say the two families suffer differently?" he asked Fairbanks, not really looking for an answer, but driving on in a clipped voice, "It's not really the same, is it?"

"What were Deputy Dewey's last words before you shot him?"

Fairbanks said he couldn't recall.

Yet, he could remember Dewey walking up the drive, engaging with Vernier and then going for his gun, Schieferdecker said in an incredulous voice. "Your memory goes in and out?"

Fairbanks' story seemed to be that Dewey started the confrontation, Schieferdecker told him. "But you shot him in the back of the head, correct?"

"I believe it was the side of his head," Fairbanks said.

Later, Schieferdecker ended his cross-examination: "Mr. Fairbanks, where did you learn to be such an accurate shot, such a good shot?"

"I don't know," Fairbanks said.

Schieferdecker pressed him: "Lucky shot?"

"Could have been," Fairbanks replied.

Fairbanks spent about 100 minutes on the stand.

Schieferdecker told state District Judge Jeff Remick that the prosecution would have no rebuttal witnesses.

Closing arguments will begin at 1 p.m. today before the jury begins deliberations, Remick told the 14 jurors, including two alternates.

Fairbanks' testimony was a rare climax to a long murder trial. Defendants in murder trials usually don't take the stand, partly because it allows the prosecution to cross-examine them.

Fairbanks' accomplice, Vernier, told a story that dovetailed pretty well with Fairbanks' later testimony.

Vernier testified Tuesday that he and Fairbanks drank together from about 10 p.m. Feb. 17, 2009, until shortly before defense attorneys acknowledge Fairbanks shot Dewey about 7:05 a.m. Feb. 18, 2009, outside Helms' home.

Vernier said Fairbanks was trying to get Helms, who lived across the street from Fairbanks, to let him in, as part of a plan to avoid law enforcement officers who twice had knocked at Fairbanks' door that morning, responding to calls about gunshots being fired.

The defense has acknowledged Fairbanks shot Dewey in the torso and head, but argued he was too intoxicated to form the criminal intent required for first-degree murder.

Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald

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