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New district attorney, new mission

Posted: July 23, 2013 - 11:08pm
James Scott, 47, talks about his new job as the Juneau District Attorney during an interview this week.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
James Scott, 47, talks about his new job as the Juneau District Attorney during an interview this week.

New District Attorney James Scott says not to expect any big, sweeping changes from the office, but there is a new mission statement.

It’s short, simple and penned by Martha Penrose, an 83-year-old local woman and customer service advisor who helped Scott set up his account at Alaska Electric Light & Power.

“‘May the bad guys pay and hopefully learn from their mistakes. May the good guys keep being good and show society the value of a life well lived,’” Scott quoted her as saying in a recent interview at his office in the Dimond Courthouse.

Now three weeks into the job, Scott came to Juneau from Ketchikan where he has been an assistant district attorney since 1999. He was appointed by the Department of Law to replace David Brower who retired at the end of April.

His arrival is marked by a new cast of characters among city staff as Juneau Police Chief Bryce Johnson and City Attorney Amy Mead also were hired in the same time frame. The trio has already met several times to collaborate and discussed making minor administrative changes. Weekend arraignments, for instance, might be handled differently, and the state will handle its own mental health court cases instead of passing it on to the city, Scott said.

But largely, Scott said no changes were needed, and in praise of his predecessor, said the office was handled “very well.”

Hired for his trial experience, Scott said he thinks of himself as a trial attorney and it’s one of the things he enjoys most. Unpacked boxes filled with old homicide cases surround the perimeter of his office space: “They’re the ones that never go away,” he said, a reference to the often lengthy appeal process.

One such case would be that against Earl Pickering, a Ketchikan man serving a 99-year sentence for murdering his wife in 2005. The wife had obtained a domestic violence restraining order after Pickering beat her up, but the day he was let out of prison for misdemeanor assault, she was found dead in her home with a gunshot wound to her head. The defense had argued the shooting was accidental and requested 20 years for manslaughter.

The case against Devin Rossiter is another — a jury convicted him of second-degree murder and tampering with evidence for fatal stabbing in Ketchikan in March 2011. He was sentenced to 52 years with 16 suspended.

Trying cases of all sorts, however, is one of the reasons Scott stayed a prosecutor in Ketchikan for 14 years. He said it forces him to be a generalist and, in contrast with attorneys who specialize in one area, he is able to try a drug case one day and a sex assault case the next.

“Very, very different cases,” he said. “It’s more interesting, frankly, than just trying the same cases over and over.”

Another reason he stayed in Ketchikan with his family was simply because they loved Southeast Alaska. The authentic, small town feel was similar to the place where he and his wife were raised, Highland, Ill., population 10,000.

In Illinois, Scott had attended high school and college at Illinois State University. He went on to graduate from Saint Louis University Law School and clerked for a plaintiff’s personal injury firm in Wood River, Ill.

After passing the bar, he began practicing law as a junior associate at Donovan, Rose, Nester, Szevchyk & Joley, P.C., an insurance defense firm. It was there he received his first trial experience doing wrongful death cases, contract disputes and employment law.

Then, in 1990, he and his wife took a fateful trip to the San Juan Islands, off coast of Washington State. It was their first look at the Pacific Northwest, and after receiving an offer from the state to go to Ketchikan, they’ve never looked back.

“I accepted on the spot,” he said. “We just fell in love with Southeast Alaska.”

He added, “And if you love Southeast, you love Juneau. It’s just a beautiful town.”

Locals have been welcoming, he said, taking note of AEL&P employee Penrose, whose comments in an email exchange not only welcomed him to Juneau but inadvertently gave rise to a mission statement. The statement was actually the second to last sentence in an email exchange. The last sentence was, “Looking forward to seeing you in social, not business circles.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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