Alcohol, Adrenaline, a Knife
(“Pinned by the Evidence,” Forensic Files)
The last two posts told of murders that were horrible, but made some sense just the same. Howard Elkins killed his pregnant girlfriend because she threatened his marriage and social standing.
Sharee Miller enticed her boyfriend to shoot her husband, Bruce, because she hoped to enrich herself via his estate.
XY doings. For Dustin “Dusty” Harless, on the other hand, there were no high stakes. He overreacted to a comment. The ensuing fight caused the end of his own life and the incarceration of another man for years.
Harless’ actions on April 18, 1996 were senseless, but that’s part of what makes them interesting.
The crime and its immediate aftermath demonstrate how an unwritten code on fair parameters for a man-on-man fight — no matter how unwarranted — can spill over into legal judgment.
Rain of terror. Here’s a recap of the Forensic Files episode about the case, “Pinned by the Evidence,” along with some extra information from internet research:
A couple consisting of Sky Flanders and surfboard salesman boyfriend Dusty Harless, age 25, exited a San Diego bar on a rainy night in 1996. She ran ahead of him to get under an awning.
Motorist David Genzler, also 25, spotted her and offered a ride. Although the episode never gives a definitive account of his verbiage, it probably fell somewhere between “Ma’am, do you need a ride?” and “Climb in, baby.”
She declined, citing the existence of a boyfriend.
Appalled to learn that a man had spoken to his girlfriend while she was standing alone, the legally intoxicated Harless walked to the passenger side of Genzler’s car to confront him.
The pin man. Twelve mintues later, Harless lay beeding from a 4-inch knife wound to his aorta. Genzler fled the scene. So did another motorist, Scott Davis, a Naval officer and bouncer who knew and apparently liked Harless enough to get out of his car to help him grapple with Genzler.
The part I forgot to mention is that Harless was a former AAU national wrestling champion who had a huge advantage over the eyeglass-wearing Genzler.
A chess club match was likely the closest the slender San Diego State University finance student ever got to beating anybody.
But Genzler was carrying a knife and he stabbed Harless during their struggle. Flanders made note of his license plate number, and police traced it to Genzler’s mother. He then turned himself in.
Blood evidence. Genzler said that Harless dragged him out of his car and pinned him so that he was facing the ground. Genzler defended himself, he said, by grabbing the knife from his pocket, reaching backward, and blindly trying to hit Harless in the shoulder.
But investigators found Harless’ blood on the front of Genzler’s shirt. That, according to the prosecution, proved the two were face to face when the knife pierced Harless’ body — and that Genzler intended to deliver a fatal wound.
Whichever the real scenario, it still sounds as though Genzler did nothing illegal. I don’t believe he willingly exited his car to confront a riled-up boyfriend in the first place.
Genzler had nothing at stake; the woman at the center of the conflict had already rebuffed him. And no one, except Sky Flanders, had heard the exchange between her and Genzler. It’s not as though she embarrassed Genzler in front of a group of people.
Waves of friends. And if a nationally recognized wrestler is attacking an unwilling opponent, doesn’t that give the latter the right to do anything he can to defend himself?
The jury didn’t think so, and convicted Genzler of second-degree murder. He received 20 years to life, and Forensic Files shows Flanders in cathartic joy upon hearing the verdict.
It’s possible Harless’ popularity in the community ultimately contributed to the guilty verdict. He was outgoing, belonged to a competitive surfing team, and had hundreds of friends. A number of them paddled into the Pacific Ocean to lay commemorative wreaths in his honor.
A post honoring Harless on the Parents of Murdered Children website places all the blame for his death on Genzler:
“…Dustin was on his way home with his girlfriend. Dustin was stabbed by David Genzler in cold blood. David jumped out of his car, hit Dustin in the temple and Dustin fell to the pavement. David jumped on top and stabbed Dustin with a 4″ knife, putting it in all the way to the hilt.”
Genzler served his sentence in Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California, until he won a new trial on the basis of having been denied his counsel of choice at the first one. (Sources vary on how much time Genzler served; it was at least three years and possibly as many as six.)
Rhythm to it. This time, Genzler’s attorneys brought in Wrestling Hall of Fame member Ned Blass to refute the most damning forensic evidence against him: Harless’ blood on the front of Genzler’s shirt.
Blass showed a common wrestling hold that would have forced Genzler to face the pavement before he stabbed Harless. The defense team also used forensic animation to show how Genzler might have flipped over right after the stabbing.
An expert testified that, because the aorta spurts at a cadence, it’s possible Harless wasn’t bleeding in the split second before Genzler turned face up.
Also, the defense found witnesses who said Dusty made a habit out of starting physical fights with other men, including one he incited after another man allegedly made an insulting comment to his girlfriend at a bar.
Justice not done. The defense also found discrepancies between the story Flanders gave to police on the night of the accident and the one she offered on the witness stand. In her first account, she admitted that Harless had Genzler on the ground and wouldn’t let him up before the stabbing.
Flanders conceded on camera during her Forensic Files appearance that she wasn’t entirely “truthful” during the first trial because she didn’t want to help the defense lawyers. (She later claimed the prosecutor had coached her to withhold information during the first trial.)
The jury found Genzler guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. The judge sentenced him to time served and set him free.
I still think Genzler was railroaded. Another unfair contention was that, because Genzler carried a knife in his pocket, he must have been looking for trouble.
Feckless fight. My brothers own and sometimes carry sporting knives, and they have never gotten into any fights (except the battles we all got into as kids, but we didn’t use weapons).
In fact, all of Genzler’s actions to end the fight seem justifiable. Evidence suggested that Harless, on the other hand, enjoyed conflict for conflict’s sake.
In the Genzler case, Harless more than likely defended honor that no one had attacked. He let adrenaline and testosterone coax him into his own demise.
Update: Read Part 2 of the Dusty Harless story.