Second trial in 2000 beating death set for May

Courts rule against hearsay at first trial

Posted: Wednesday, January 05, 2005

A man originally sentenced to 85 years in prison in connection with the January 2000 beating death of a Juneau man will get a second trial in May.

Ronald E. Smith, now 38, was found guilty in December 2000 of killing Kenneth Ike Thomas. Three years later the Alaska Court of Appeals reversed his conviction on charges of second-degree murder, first-degree assault of a second man and first-degree robbery.

Smith appeared before Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks on Tuesday afternoon for a hearing to set a new trial date.

Weeks, who presided at the first trial, scheduled the second to begin May 16. Juneau District Attorney Patrick Gullufsen said a March date that Weeks originally suggested was too soon because he already is scheduled to try a first-degree murder case in March. The defendant in that case, James Harmon, is charged with killing Maggie Wigen, 19, in Tenakee Springs in 2003.

Smith is charged with killing Thomas, 36, at Thomas' home near Willoughby Avenue downtown. In December 2000, Rey Joel Soto, now 25, was convicted along with Smith. Soto was not part of Smith's appeal.

Weeks sentenced both Smith and Soto to 85 years in prison but suspended 40 years of Soto's sentence.

Attorneys for Smith and Soto argued at the trial that there was no robbery and that the men had gone to Thomas' trailer to purchase marijuana.

Smith testified on his own behalf at the first trial. He said Thomas had initiated an assault on him.

In reversing the jury verdict against Smith, the appeals court cited trial testimony from witness Caroline Gerken.

Gerken testified that her boyfriend, Zachary Brown, had told her he gave a shotgun to Smith and Soto before the robbery and killing and later cleaned blood from it.

Brown did not testify at the trial, invoking his constitutional right not to incriminate himself.

The appeals court ruled that Weeks should not have allowed the hearsay statement - Gerken's testimony about something she heard. Brown would not have violated his self-interest if he had testified consistent with Gerken's statement, the court ruled.

The question of whether Smith armed himself before going to Thomas' home could have been critical to the jury, the court concluded.

Smith's attorney, Kirsten Swanson, asked for a bail hearing. No hearing date was set Tuesday.

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