'Smithart' conflict nets murder defendant a new attorney

Christopher D. Strawn , 32, appears in Juneau District Court Thursday for first-degree murder for allegedly shooting Brandon C. Cook. Bail was set at $1 million.

A Juneau resident awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges was appointed a new attorney on Monday after a judge found that the Public Defender Agency has a conflict with the case.


Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg withdrew the agency’s involvement in representing Christopher Dean Strawn following a closed-door hearing Monday morning. Strawn’s public defender, Eric Hedland, had alerted the judge to a possible conflict last week and had requested the sealed proceeding.

Hedland did not disclose the conflict in open court, and only said in a hearing on Thursday that it involved a “Smithart” conflict.

A Smithart conflict refers to an Alaska Supreme Court ruling that overturned Charles Smithart’s 1993 conviction for kidnapping, raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl in Tazlina. The state Supreme Court ruled in its 1999 decision that a lower-court judge erred by not allowing Smithart to argue at trial that another man committed the crime. The trial court judge had ruled Smithart’s lawyer didn’t have enough potential evidence against the other man to point the finger at him, but the high court disagreed, saying that limitation hampered Smithart’s ability to defend himself. Smithart died of lung cancer in 2000 before being re-tried.

In this case, that means that Strawn, 32, likely wants to argue at trial that someone else slayed Brandon C. Cook inside a trailer at the Kodzoff Acres Mobile Home Park the night of Oct. 20. That other person — who has not been named in open court — is presumably in the criminal justice system being represented by the Public Defender Agency in another case, hence the conflict.

“... If it turns out if hypothetically that we were pointing the fingers at our client, that could be a big problem for us,” Hedland said in court Thursday to Pallenberg and Assistant District Attorney Amy Paige.

Prosecutors said Strawn shot Cook, a 32-year-old originally from Wewoka, Oklahoma, in the back of the head “execution style” while Cook was helping a woman paint the kitchen in her new trailer. The woman, who is the state’s key witness, told authorities that Strawn was hired to help with her trailer renovations and that Strawn had been helping that night, left and came back with a shotgun.

“(The woman) said she then heard a loud bang and saw Cook drop to the floor,” Juneau Police Department detective Dominic Branson wrote in a police complaint. “Behind her she saw Strawn about 10 feet away holding what she described as a short-barreled shotgun with a pistol-style grip. Strawn told her not to be worried because he wasn’t going to kill her. The woman said she ran to the rear of the trailer and called 911, where she waited for the police to arrive.”

Strawn was arrested at his residence the following morning and has since been held at Lemon Creek Correctional Center on $1 million bail.

Judge Pallenberg appointed the state’s Office of Public Advocacy to represent Strawn. OPA handles conflict cases received from the Public Defender Agency.

The judge told Strawn he should have a new attorney in a day or two when OPA appoints him one. Another hearing is scheduled for Thursday to determine a new trial date with the new counsel.

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