Sitkans doubt Abbott can get fair trial at home

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2008

Presiding Judge David George was the first to offer official speculation about Jason Abbott's chances of an impartial jury in Sitka during his upcoming trial on charges that he killed grandparents, one aunt and her boyfriend, and tried to kill a second aunt with a five-inch knife.

In an effort to keep Abbott's trial in Sitka, the superior court judge banned courtroom cameras until further notice and encouraged the defense to dress the 18-year-old in less prisoner-like clothing for court appearances.

In court, George said he was concerned over seating an impartial jury for the March slayings.

According to police, Abbott was arrested at the killing scene holding a knife to his own throat as his grandmother lay bleeding to death in the front yard. The aunt who survived said Abbott continued to attack her in the driveway until police arrived.

Abbott is held on $1 million bail and housed in an Anchorage area prison.

It is "very doubtful" that a crime of such magnitude committed in a town so small could be viewed impartially by anyone, Sitka Mayor Marko Dapcevich said. Just about everybody knows something about the case, he said.

Adam Litten was in Portland, Ore., when he first heard about the brutal killings and who allegedly committed them.

The lifelong Sitkan said he knew a lot about Abbott within an hour of the original 911 call.

"I heard he was kind of a crazy dude; he was angry and did a bunch of drugs," Litten said.

At the moment, neither the defense nor prosecution has asked to move the eventual trial to a different location.

Jonie Calhoun, a nine-year superior court clerk, said she's never seen a trial in Sitka that didn't eventually seat a jury. Venues have changed for some, but "we've always been able to seat a jury," she said.

George declined to comment for this article.

If Abbott's trial were held in Sitka, Dapcevich said any chance at impartiality would come from new residents "that don't read the newspaper."

"Everyone in town is connected to the murder by a few degrees of separation," Litten said. "Things like that don't happen here. When they do, it doesn't go unnoticed."

Nancy Perkins moved to Sitka from the East Coast after retiring last fall. No matter how new Perkins is, she's not beyond the reach of talk about the slayings. Recently, the entire congregation of her new church was praying for the Abbott family, Perkins said.

"No matter what he did, God still loves him," Perkins said.

In a 2005 Alaska Law Review article, a federal public defender said the state's highest appellate court encouraged changing trial locations in "high-profile" case when there is a "substantial likelihood" an impartial jury can't be had because of pre-trial publicity.

Rich Curtner's long argument favors use of public opinion surveys to conclude if the local jury pool is tainted by factually incorrect or inadmissible information from the media. The traditional method is lengthy interviews during jury selection.

Fred Hope lives a few doors down from the slaying scene on Monastery Street. Hope doubts Abbott's chance for a fair trial in Sitka mostly because of newspaper articles he's read and assumes others have, too.

"I would say he is guilty," Hope said.

Thad Poulson, editor and publisher of the Daily Sitka Sentinel, said his staff has reported everything that happened but avoided the kind of "speculative reporting" seen in regional newspapers.

Sentinel reporters worked without concern for the jury pool, he said.

"Let the chips fall where they may," Poulson said. "Our coverage has been straight down the line."

Three days after the slayings, 70 percent of the 8,000 residents in Sitka had a chance to read a Sentinel front-page headline proclaiming, "Teen held for murders recalled as good athlete." The day before, a headline simply read, "Sitka teen charged with four murders."

Sitka's jury pool holds 6,141 residents.

Impartiality goes both ways, Dapcevich said. Despite what happened, Abbott grew up in Sitka, and many people care for and like him, he said.

• Contact reporter Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or e-mail

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