James Harmon won't stand trial again on the most serious charge for a 2003 Tenakee Springs killing he's already been found guilty of committing, Juneau's district attorney has decided.
In May, a Juneau jury found Harmon, 26, guilty of second-degree murder in the 2003 death of 19-year-old Maggie Wigen. The jury deliberated on that charge only after members told the judge they were unable to reach a verdict on first-degree murder. District Attorney Patrick Gullufsen later said he planned to retry the first-degree murder charge.
This week Gullufsen filed notice he is dismissing the charge. The trial was scheduled to begin Sept. 1 in Ketchikan. He reserved the right to refile and prosecute the first-degree murder charge if the courts fail to uphold the murder conviction.
"Our feeling is we're looking at a substantial sentence" for the existing conviction, Gullufsen said. Ketchikan Superior Court Judge Trevor Stephens, who presided at Harmon's monthlong trial this spring, has not yet set a sentencing date.
Last week attorneys for both sides said they were ready for a September trial. Stephens had moved the trial to Ketchikan because of publicity the first trial received in Juneau.
Wigen's mother, Karin Wigen of Washington state, said Wednesday she had nothing to say on the matter.
Harmon's mother said she was surprised and pleased by the decision, though she had believed Ketchikan would be a fairer venue for a second trial.
"It's a huge relief," Janice Jackson said from her Ketchikan home. "James didn't get a fair trial the first time. People down here are fair and down-to-earth people. I think it would have been a lot different in Ketchikan."
"I still believe James is innocent," Jackson added.
Under Alaska law, the difference between a first- and second-degree murder conviction would be the minimum prison sentence. Although both charges carry a maximum sentence of 99 years, the minimum sentence for second-degree murder is 10 years, half of the minimum for first-degree murder.
Alaska's courts have further defined how defendants should be sentenced within the range, based on a defendant's criminal history and aspects of the crime. Gullufsen said the state will argue for a sentence in the context of a crime having attributes of first-degree murder.
Wigen's body was found on April 1, 2003, in an earth dam near the cabin she called home in Tenakee Springs. Neighbors realized she was missing the previous week.
In addition to second-degree murder, jurors found Harmon guilty of first-degree sexual assault and second-degree theft related to Wigen's death at her Tenakee Springs cabin, as well as attempted first-degree sexual assault several months earlier, after a New Year's Eve party at the beginning of 2003.
The second-degree murder charge alleged Harmon killed Wigen while sexually assaulting her, circumstances that many states define as first-degree murder, Gullufsen said.
To find Harmon guilty of first-degree murder, jurors would have had to determine he intended to kill Wigen.
Assistant Public Defender David Seid, who has headed Harmon's defense, has filed a motion seeking to have the first-degree murder charge permanently dismissed. In a written pleading with the court, he has argued that trying Harmon of first-degree murder when a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder in the same woman's death would violate his client's protection against double jeopardy under state law.
"First-degree murder and second-degree murder of the same victim constitute the same offense," Seid wrote. He referred to Alaska cases from 1970 to make his point.
Shelly Wilson, a former Tenakee Springs mayor, testified twice during the trial. Her daughter testified on her 16th birthday. Wilson said she was "not in the least disappointed" to get a message from the defense saying there wouldn't be a second trial.
"I figure justice has been served," Wilson said.
The jury already found Harmon guilty of killing Wigen, she said. "I'm glad we're not going into it again."
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.