Harmon defense wants Ketchikan

Lawyer claims Empire headline was prejudicial

Posted: Monday, June 13, 2005

It would be impossible for James Harmon to receive a fair Juneau trial on a first-degree murder charge when a front-page Empire headline already has announced, "Harmon found guilty" of other charges, his attorney is arguing.

When Harmon stands trial on the most serious charge in the 2003 death of Maggie Wigen in Tenakee Springs, he should be in a Ketchikan courtroom, Assistant Public Defender David Seid wrote in a motion filed with the presiding judge in the case.

In early May, a Juneau jury deadlocked on a first-degree murder charge but found Harmon guilty of other charges against Wigen, including second-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault.

On May 17, Juneau District Attorney Patrick Gullufsen said he plans to retry Harmon on the remaining charge. Ketchikan Superior Court Judge Trevor Stephens, who came to Juneau to preside over the first trial, scheduled the new trial for Aug. 29.

Late last week, Gullufsen responded that the trial shouldn't be moved without first questioning prospective jurors.

"It would be unprecedented for the court at this point to presume a fair jury could not be selected," Gullufsen wrote. "Pretrial publicity does not equal bias," he wrote, quoting a higher-court ruling.

"The publicity surrounding the trial in April was not of an inflammatory nature," he added.

The first- and second-degree murder charges in the indictment against Harmon both allege Harmon killed Wigen in late March 2003 in the island community about 45 miles southwest of Juneau. In finding Harmon guilty of first-degree murder, jurors found he killed her "in the furtherance" of raping her. They failed to agree on the more serious charge, which alleged he intended to kill the 19-year-old woman.

Both charges carry a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison. The possible minimum sentences are different - 10 years for second-degree murder and 20 years for first-degree murder.

Seid argued that fairness and accuracy in media coverage, which also included some radio reports, is not the issue. He wrote "it appears inconceivable" that a new group of potential jurors could presume him innocent of the remaining charge.

It wasn't just that people would have heard about the case from the media, because while the trial was going on, it was the major topic of discussion in the community, Seid wrote.

From his experience, Seid wrote, "no case has be discussed more amongst its citizens during the trial."

The attorneys' arguments did not address what, if any, attention the trial received in Ketchikan, where Harmon attended high school and where his mother lives.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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