John Michael Kohl walked out of court Thursday an innocent but devastated man.
A jury had acquitted him of involuntary manslaughter. But the fact remained: He had killed another man.
“People died on that mountain,” he said, choking back tears. “Two people died. I died.”
The 41-year-old minister was charged with a felony after he accidentally had shot Shawn Jenkins while hunting north of Coeur d’Alene.
On Thursday, Jenkins’ family hugged and cried, disappointed at what they consider an unjust verdict. Still, the victim’s older brother said he feels sorry for Kohl.
“We know that he is going to have to answer to God, who is much higher than that court,” said Erin Jenkins.
During closing arguments, Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas told the jury that Kohl had violated a basic rule of hunter safety.
“You positively identify your target before you fire and you make sure no one is nearby,” he said.
On Oct. 17, Shawn and Erin Jenkins were hunting on Cedar Mountain.
Kohl also was there. He told the jury that he saw the head of elk come out from behind a tree, that he checked through his rifle scope and again saw the large head.
“When I pulled the trigger, I had no doubt in my mind what I was looking at,” Kohl said.
But what he hit was the father of two young children.
Although Kohl has insisted he saw an elk in the woods, Erin Jenkins testified Kohl had told him he fired the gun after seeing a triangle shape in the trees.
Frederick Loats, Kohl’s attorney, told the jury the shooting was a tragic accident, not a crime.
He said Kohl had taken many precautions to be a safe hunter. Among them, Kohl:
Told the property owner he would be hunting in the area.
Tried to walk away from where other hunters were.
Brought a cellular phone with him for safety.
“I think most of us go through life thinking this could never happen to me,” Kohl said after the trial. “I always played by the rules. But it can happen, and it’s utterly, utterly devastating when it does.”
Kohl’s wife and five young children attended all three days of trial. Kohl said his friends and religious faith have helped his family survive the ordeal.
“It’s kept us together; it’s given us hope; it’s kept us moving toward the light at the end of the dark tunnel,” he said.
Kohl, a Presbyterian minister, said he hopes to start a church in Coeur d’Alene.
He said the jury’s verdict - reached after three hours - has offered him some relief. But he added, “I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.”
Since 1990, 12 people have died in Idaho after being shot while hunting.
The shooting and trial captured the interest of many hunters, said Phil Cooper, local conservation educator for the Idaho Fish and Game Department.
He said he believes Jenkins’ death has made more hunters conscious of how important it is to be sure of their targets.
“I think there were more hunters who had that in their minds before they pulled the trigger,” Cooper said.
But Erin Jenkins said he believes the jury’s decision Thursday sent the wrong message to hunters.
“Basically, it says ‘go ahead and shoot somebody and don’t worry about taking responsibility for it,”’ he said.
Jenkins said he never again will be able to rifle-hunt.
“I can’t put my wife and my children through thinking every time I go hunting I might not come back.”