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Alaska Appeals Court reverses murder conviction

Posted: January 1, 2012 - 12:06am

ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Court of Appeals in a decision released Friday reversed a murder conviction in a fatal car crash five years ago in east Anchorage.

David T. Prince in 2006 was behind the wheel of a sport utility vehicle that crashed into the back of a small car at high speed, killing one and seriously injuring three others.

The three-judge panel, in a split decision, ruled that prosecutors should not have been allowed to introduce evidence that Prince previously had been convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, saying the chance of that information prejudicing a jury outweighed the relevance of the conviction.

Prosecutors had said the previous conviction showed that Prince was aware of the dangers of driving drunk, and therefore the second-degree murder conviction should stand.

Anchorage District Attorney Adrienne Bachman said her department was evaluating the decision and had not decided its next move.

The Appeals Court decision, she said, excluded evidence of his prior conviction but did not rule on other key elements in a murder conviction, including whether his conduct amounted to “extreme indifference to the value of human life.”

The state may appeal the decision to the Alaska Supreme Court, Bachman said. If the state does not appeal, she said, Prince will be retried for the homicide and assault.

Prince is not entitled to an automatic release and remains in custody pending a 15-day window for the state to appeal the ruling, Bachman said. If the state does not appeal, she said, Prince would be entitled to a bail hearing.

An afterhours call to the Anchorage Public Defender’s Office went unanswered.

Before the 2008 trial, prosecutors successfully moved to include Prince’s previous DUI conviction as part of their case, including evidence showing that six weeks before the crash that killed Pamela Miller and seriously injured Antoinette Mayes, Lamont Flemister and Dessie Cooper, the defendant had completed a court-ordered program that included education about the dangers of drinking and driving.

Prince was convicted of second-degree murder, assault, driving under the influence and related charges. He was sentenced to 16 1/2 years in prison.

According to the opinion written by Chief Judge Robert Coats, prosecutors should not have been allowed to bring up Prince’s previous conviction. The Alaska Supreme Court in a previous case had allowed a prior record to be told to a jury to show a defendant’s heightened awareness of the risk of driving under the influence. However, that man had been convicted of driving drunk six times before a crash that killed a passenger.

Prince argued that his single conviction was not nearly as egregious and that telling his jury had little value to show he had a heightened sense of the dangers of driving under the influence. Rather, there was significant danger that the jury would be prejudiced against him.

Coats agreed. The jury, Coats said, could presume the defendant’s guilt from the fact that he had done it before.

“Prince had one prior conviction for driving under the influence. There was no evidence about the facts of that conviction that would make it particularly relevant. Under these circumstances, we conclude that the relevance of the evidence that Prince had previously been convicted was outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice,” Coats wrote.

Judge David Mannheimer, in a concurring opinion, ruled that “evidence of a defendant’s prior DUI convictions normally carries a high potential for unfair prejudice,” he said.

Judge Joel Bolger disagreed. A reasonable judge, he said, could conclude that past convictions were relevant to a defendant’s awareness of the risks created by driving under the influence, and prejudice from the evidence did not necessarily outweigh that value, he wrote.

He also disagreed that admissibility was dependent on the number of previous convictions, as Coats suggested in the lead opinion.

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