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Jurors fire handgun in Fairbanks trial demonstration

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CROOKSTON -- Ninety-one times in the courtroom Tuesd morning, the jury "dry-fired" the handgun used by Thomas Fairbanks to shoot Mahnomen County Deputy Christopher Dewey.

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In what state law enforcement officers said was a rare courtroom demonstration, each of the 15 jurors filed out of the jury box one after another, took the 9 mm SIG-Sauer semi-automatic and fired it six times into a "bullet-trap," under the direction of Nat Pearlson, firearms expert for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's Bemidji office.

The dry clicks of the empty gun's firing mechanism could be heard throughout the courtroom, back to the bench in the rear where Dewey's widow, Emily, watched.

Walking away from the courtroom after the demonstration with the boxed-up, locked-up handgun under his arm, Pearlson, a two-decade veteran of the BCA who led the crime scene investigation of Dewey's Feb. 18, 2009 shooting, could be heard telling a law enforcement colleague, "I"ve never done that before."

Another BCA officer in the courtroom also remarked on how unusual such a jury demonstration is during a trial.

The gun was empty of bullets and the jurors each "dry-fired," the gun three times in "double-action," and three times in "single-action." One juror was instructed to fire a seventh time into the heavy tube of a bullet trap when Pearlson said he wasn't sure the final trigger pull had completed the firing mechanism.

Another officer explained later that the bullet trap is simply an extra measure of safety used when dry-firing handguns and isn't used with live ammunition.

Dewey died Aug. 9, 2010, of the wounds he suffered in the 2009 incident in which defense attorneys have acknowledged Fairbanks fired the same handgun three times at Dewey, hitting him in the head and torso.

Fairbanks is charged with first-degree murder of a peace officer in the incident and if convicted, would face a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. He also faces charges of assault on several other law enforcement officers for allegedly firing the same handgun toward them during the ensuing nine-hour standoff.

Defense attorney Ed Hellekson told the jury in his opening statement last week that evidence would show Fairbanks was too intoxicated to have criminal intent in shooting Dewey. The defense also is aiming to show that the handgun's trigger could be so easily pulled that Fairbanks accidentally fired the handgun at times that day. To make their case, the defense was allowed a small interruption Monday and Tuesday in the prosecution's list of witnesses to bring in firearms expert John Nixon from Indiana. Because of his travel arrangements and availability, Nixon was the first defense witness. He testfied this morning about what officers on the scene would have heard of shots fired from Fairbanks' trailer home toward them that February day in 2009.

Nixon also stood near Pearlson during the jury shooting demonstration to give the defense their own expert observer of the event..

The demonstration was agreed to by both sides to give each juror a hands-on idea of how easy the handgun's trigger can be pulled, either in single action or double-action, which takes a "longer, heavier pull," Pearlson said. Typically, the SIG-Sauer P225, also called the P6, can be fired by an initital trigger pull that takes more effort, in a "double-action" action that cocks the action as well as fires the gun. Subsequent trigger pulls in "single-action," then take less effort on the trigger as each round fired provides the energy to re-cock the handgun, Pearlson explained to the jury.

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