Judge denies request to move ex-cop's trial

Former Nome officer is charged with first-degree murder of 19-year-old

Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2004

ANCHORAGE - The trial of a former Nome police officer accused of murder will be held in the community, after a judge denied a defense request to move the case elsewhere.

Superior Court Judge Ben Esch said such a move, if needed, can best be made after the search for impartial jurors has begun in the trial of Matthew Owens.

Owens, whose trial is tentatively set for April, is charged with first-degree murder in the August death of 19-year-old Sonya Ivanoff.

Race and pretrial publicity were key issues in the arguments over a change in venue, according to documents filed by prosecutors and Owen's defense.

Owens' attorney, James McComas, asked the court in writing two months ago to move his client's trial out of the Second Judicial District, which includes Nome, Kotzebue and Barrow. At that time, the murder case had made front-page news in Nome for 14 weeks straight, he wrote.

Ivanoff's body was found on the outskirts of Nome on Aug. 13. She had been shot in the back of the head.

"The coverage continues to be prominent not only in the Nome Nugget but on local radio as well," McComas wrote. "Continuous pretrial publicity is not 'blunted' by the passage of time - it accumulates into certainty of guilt."

Many in the town of 3,500 have ties to Owens, Ivanoff or witnesses involved in the case, McComas argued. Both Owens, a Nome police officer from 2000 to 2003, and Ivanoff, a one-year resident who worked as an intake secretary at a local hospital, held positions where they dealt with the public, he wrote.

Senior District Attorney Richard Svobodny argued that there is no recognized legal principle for the disqualification of an entire judicial district and accused the defense of trying to change the racial makeup of the jury pool. Nome, Kotzebue and Barrow each have substantial Inuit populations, he wrote, and Ivanoff was also Inuit.

Owens, who is white, was released on a reduced bail of $30,000 in December and has been staying at a private residence in Anchorage awaiting trial.

Esch concluded the defense demonstrated that a great deal of publicity was associated with the case. But he said the question still remained whether the publicity had created a situation in which Owens could not obtain a fair trial by an impartial jury.

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