Court: Mainland jury gave St. Paul man fair trial

Posted: Monday, April 26, 2010

ANCHORAGE - An Alaska appeals court has ruled that a St. Paul man got a fair trial in a case that raised questions about jury selection in small, remote villages.

Gregory Lestenkof, 44, argued that his case should have been heard by a jury on the island in the Bering Sea. Lestenkof was tried in Dillingham, on the mainland 450 miles away, after efforts to seat a jury in St. Paul failed.

Lestenkof was convicted of assault after he was accused of assaulting a woman at his home. In a 2-1 decision Friday, the state Court of Appeals found that the judge in the case did everything reasonably possible to get a jury seated in St. Paul. One of the appeals court judges believed more could have been done.

Lestenkof has the option to take the case to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Lestenkof argued unsuccessfully that any attempt to replicate a jury of his peers elsewhere wasn't fair because the Alaska Natives on St. Paul are different from other Alaska Natives.

Judge Joel Bolger and David Mannheimer upheld the conviction; Chief Judge Robert Coats wanted to order a new trial. In his dissenting opinion, Coats agreed with Lestenkof, saying that St. Paul is the largest Aleut community in the United States and Natives on the island have a distinctive culture and history.

The case raises the issue of how to select a jury in a small, remote Bush village where many people are related or know of a case.

Lestenkof wanted the trial judge, William Morse, to charter a plane to St. George Island, about 50 miles away, to bring in additional jurors, but Morse declined. Lestenkof also asked that the judge agree to a jury with fewer than 12 people, and Morse declined.

Morse concluded that getting 12 unbiased people was not going to happen. He relocated the trial to Dillingham.

Bolger and Mannheimer concluded Morse did everything reasonably possible to get a jury on St. Paul. But Coats said more could have and should have been done.

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