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Trial takes grisly turn with 'horrifying' photos of gunshot victim

Medical examiner found Sandra M. Perry's manner of death undetermined

Posted: March 22, 2014 - 11:06pm
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This photograph, which was provided to the Empire by state prosecutors and published with permission of family members, shows Sandra M. Perry in the years before she was killed at a Yakutat lodge in July 1996. Now 17 years later, her boyfriend is on trial in Juneau for murdering her. The defendant, Robert D. Kowalski, claims the fatal shooting was an accident.  Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
This photograph, which was provided to the Empire by state prosecutors and published with permission of family members, shows Sandra M. Perry in the years before she was killed at a Yakutat lodge in July 1996. Now 17 years later, her boyfriend is on trial in Juneau for murdering her. The defendant, Robert D. Kowalski, claims the fatal shooting was an accident.

Editor’s note: The following article contains graphic descriptions and mature subject matter.

In the first day of trial against a man accused of murdering his girlfriend, a Juneau jury saw pictures of the 39-year-old victim when she was alive and well. Sandra M. Perry posed with her young son in front of Mount Rainier in a candid family picture taken during a camping trip. Her brown feathered shoulder-length hair perfectly framed her smiling face in another photograph taken by a professional.

But the trial took a grisly turn Friday when the jury was required to look at graphic images from Perry’s autopsy as the deputy medical examiner took the witness stand to discuss his findings. Perry, a mother of three, was shot in the head with a slug from a 12-gauge “bear killer” shotgun fired by her boyfriend Robert D. Kowalski, who claimed it was an accident.

Jurors held their hands over their mouths as they flipped through a packet of the black-and-white photographs, some of which showed Perry in a body bag, naked and almost completely decapitated. Other pictures showed Perry’s face sewn back together with coarse stitches as examiners attempted to find the gunshot entry wound and trace the trajectory of the slug.

“It’s disgusting to look at,” Kowalski attorney Eric Hedland said outside the earshot of the jury.

One of Perry’s sons sat in the courtroom galley and was comforted by a victim’s advocate sitting next to him. She rubbed his back throughout the ordeal.

Hedland objected to using all of the 13 “horrifying” pictures the prosecutor and medical examiner wanted to show the jury, concerned they were unfairly prejudicial to his client. The assistant public defender said so many graphic images were unnecessary especially since only three such pictures were used in the grand jury proceedings.

“They’re getting a picture of a woman without a head and with her face sewn back together in that group of three,” Hedland told the judge. “That’s enough.”

Assistant Attorney General James Fayette, on the other hand, said the deputy medical examiner needed those pictures in order to testify about the autopsy proceedings. He noted the examiner selected those 13 pictures out of 100.

“Many other pictures were worse,” Fayette added.

After about an hour of arguments about the photographs on Friday, the judge agreed to eliminate some from the bunch and to edit others to censor out private body parts.

Prosecutors say the shooting was intentional. Kowalski says he had armed himself with a shotgun because he and Perry thought they had heard a bear outside. Kowalski maintains the gun discharged when Perry startled him and he tripped. He is facing two counts of murder and could be facing life in prison if convicted.

Kowalski, who was 34 at the time of the July 1996 shooting, turned 53 on Saturday. He is serving a 40-year prison sentence in connection to a Montana homicide.

His then-girlfriend was fatally shot in the head in 2008 after the two had an argument. That recent event was the impetus to re-opening the Yakutat case, which had been cold for a decade and a half.

Kowalski was never charged with the Yakutat shooting because the state of Alaska did not believe it had a strong enough case to disprove Kowalski’s story of an accidental shooting, according to an old memo from a former Juneau district attorney.

Friday marked the second day of Kowalski’s trial, and it featured testimony from the deputy medical examiner and other witnesses from the Glacier Bear Lodge, where the shooting took place at about 3 a.m. on July 21, 1996, in the couple’s bedroom.

Norman Thompson, the deputy medical examiner who examined Perry’s remains in the 1990s, testified under questioning from prosecutors that the cause of death was obvious: a massive gun wound to the head. Facial reconstruction allowed him to determine the entry point was just beneath the chin, although he could not determine the location of the exit wound. Perry was covered in gunshot residue, which led Thompson to believe she was shot in the “intermediate range,” somewhere between six inches to three feet away.

Testimony so far has shown Perry and Kowalski, Washington residents vacationing in Alaska, were drinking alcohol the night of the shooting. Thompson said he drew Perry’s blood and urine for testing and found her blood alcohol content was around 0.079 percent, near the 0.08 illegal driving limit. Perry also tested positive for amphetamines, Thompson said.

While Thompson did determine the cause of death, he did not determine the manner of death, he said under cross examination. Medical examiners usually check one of five boxes indicicating the manner of death: natural causes, suicide, accident, homicide or undetermined. In this case, Thompson did not find the shooting was either a homicide, as prosecutors say it was, or an accident, as the defense says it was.

“Frequently the manner of death is obvious, and so checking a box is not a problem,” Thompson said, noting the state keeps a record of manner of deaths for statistical purposes. “Other times it’s not obvious. And so, a box such as undetermined would be checked because it’s not entirely clear if it was an accident or homicide.”

Thompson confirmed under cross-examination that was his finding back in 1996, and it still is now.

Prosecutors also called a witness who was staying at the Glacier Bay Lodge in the room next to Perry and Kowalski’s. Richard Tenwolde, now 75, said he overheard an argument in the room and then a gunshot.

On direct examination, Tenwolde said Perry was the only one raising her voice, and that she said “**** you” multiple times to Kowalski. The last time she said “**** — ” but the gunshot rang out, he said.

“She didn’t get the ‘you’ out,” he said, adding he heard nothing after that. “Just silence.”

He added that the only thing he heard Kowalski say during the argument was “calm down,” to Perry.

On cross-examination, Hedland asked why Tenwolde never told his story to troopers that way, considering he gave multiple interviews to law enforcement over the years. Tenwolde insisted he always told the story that way. Hedland later said he intends to impeach Tenwolde’s statements by questioning the lead trooper in charge of the investigation.

Also during his testimony, Tenwolde corroborated a story told by his brother-in-law: that the day before the shooting, Kowalski snapped at Perry while she was socializing with fishermen cleaning their catch at a fish cleaning station in a parking lot. Tenwolde said he witnessed Kowalski getting “a little pissed off” and cursing at her because, he inferred, Perry was talking to other men and Kowalski was being possessive.

On cross-examination, Hedland called into question the fact that the information about Kowalski cursing at Perry or treating her badly never came to light before the trial began, and he wondered if Tenwolde was subconsciously embellishing his story, or going off of what his brother-in-law thought.

About the parking lot incident itself, Tenwolde said he disagreed that it was a “wild scene.” Unbeknownst to him, since he’s not allowed to watch other witnesses testify, that’s how Tenwolde’s brother-in-law put it Thursday during his testimony on the stand.

The trial is slated to continue Monday morning with the state calling more of its witnesses. The trial is scheduled to last about three weeks in Juneau Superior Court.

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

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