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Anchorage prosecutor slams self-defense bill

Posted: March 19, 2012 - 12:02am

JUNEAU — A bill that would expand the right to use lethal force as a means of self-defense is dangerous, without support in the prosecutorial community, and rife with potential unintended consequences, an Anchorage prosecutor said Friday.

James Fayette, an assistant district attorney, took a day off work to fly to Juneau on his own dime to speak out against HB80 during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, would allow Alaskans to use lethal force in self-defense anywhere they are legally allowed. Current law explicitly affords that right only when someone is at home or work.

Similar legislation has been enacted around the country with the backing of the National Rifle Association. The bill cleared the House last year and is supported by Gov. Sean Parnell. It also has strong bipartisan support in the Senate.

But Fayette told the committee the bill is laden with the potential for unintended consequences.

“This is a bad idea,” Fayette said. “It will do nothing to enhance the safety of law-abiding gun owners. What it will do is make it more difficult for me and my colleagues to convict violent criminals.”

Fayette said the bill would unintentionally give people guilty of murder under current law an out in court. By removing the duty of a person to retreat whenever possible, he said, they could claim they killed someone in self-defense in just about any situation.

Fayette distributed news clippings to committee members that highlighted four Alaska cases he said could have ended differently if the proposal was already law.

One was the conviction of Vongdeuane Vongthongdy, who was convicted of first- and second-degree murder for the 2008 killing of an off-duty military police officer from Fort Richardson who was outside a bar in downtown Anchorage. Fayette showed the committee video of Vongthongdy, already a convicted felon at the time of the shooting, firing a .40-caliber handgun into the air in a street outside of a bar. The video shows 24-year-old Sgt. Evan Minnear approach and try to get diffuse the situation, but a fight ensued and Vongthongdy shot him dead.

“He claimed self-defense at trial,” Fayette said. “After protracted legal argument toward the close of the trial, the judge ruled for various reasons that he had the opportunity to walk away. Had he been able to say, ‘I didn’t have to have to walk away,’ that claim would have gone to the jury and he may have been acquitted.”

Fayette also mentioned a gang-related shooting in downtown Anchorage, a Ketchikan man killed trying to stop someone from rifling through his parents’ vehicle and a “road-rage related” case that left a Fairbanks man stabbed to death.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, a co-sponsor of the bill and committee member, said after the hearing that Fayette’s argument was dramatic and compelling but did nothing to win him over.

“All the examples that were given, they’re covered under current law,” Wielechowski said. “We’re not saying you can just go out there and shoot somebody. You would have to reasonably believe someone is trying to kill you, rob you, sexually assault you, before lethal force would be allowed. This gives Alaskans the opportunity to protect themselves.”

Neuman said he didn’t think it was appropriate to bring up specific cases in a brief committee hearing. He also took issue with Fayette, who was invited to speak by committee Chair Hollis French, claiming to speak only on his own behalf but mentioning his job and credentials in detail.

After the hearing, Neuman emphasized his continued support of the bill.

“There’s a certain sanctity that’s allowed to you under the ‘castle doctrine,’” Neuman said, referring to the current law. “Why should you not have those same rights if you’re out camping, if you’re at the Dimond Center?”

The committee held the bill, but another hearing is expected.

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