Sitka jury finds Starr guilty

Panel decides Angoon defendant committed second-degree murder

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2004

SITKA - A jury on Friday convicted 24-year-old Angoon resident Denni Starr in the stabbing death of her boyfriend, Richard "Buddy" George.

The Sitka jury took four hours to find Starr guilty of second-degree murder and reckless endangerment of the couple's 17-month-old, who was in George's arms when he was stabbed in the back on July 26, 2003. George died at the couple's home in Angoon.

The couple had had a tempestuous relationship, according to testimony at the trial. Both Starr and George were alleged to have struck each other during arguments.

Starr's parents and sisters clustered around her as she sobbed when the verdict was read. Her mother prayed while family members clung to each other.

Later, Starr's father, Dennis, relayed a message to George's parents, who were dealing with their own emotions in a nearby room in the courthouse. Sitka victims' advocate Vicki D'Amico walked into the room and told the George couple, "Dennis Starr said to tell you guys he is sorry this happened."

George's father, also named Richard, said that those words help not only their family but Angoon residents who have been riven by the case and will hear of it later.

"I think the healing process is going to begin," Richard George Sr. said.

He said he and his wife plan to pursue full or joint custody of their son's two children with Starr. The children are now being cared for by their maternal grandparents and aunts.

George's parents said they had decided they had to forgive Starr less than 24 hours after their son's death, while they were lying awake in bed at 5 a.m. They announced their decision publicly at his funeral. But they became angry during the trial because, they said, their son was falsely painted as a sometimes violent-tempered man who hit and choked Denni.

"A lot of the things they said about Buddy wasn't true," said his mother, Barbara George.

"We go to church, so we know the right thing for us to do was forgive," she said. She thanked Sitka residents for their support through the trial and the jury for its decision.

The Starr family did not provide comment Friday afternoon. Their attorney, Assistant Public Advocate Steve Wells, said they will evaluate their legal options and make a decision early next week.

Wells attempted to get a new trial for Starr, or a continuance, on Friday morning because he said he was never informed that Starr showed evidence of a concussion when she was examined Aug. 4, 2003, at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. Starr had informed her previous attorney of the diagnosis, Wells told Juneau District Judge Larry Weeks.

Wells said the new information had a "profound impact" on his case, but Weeks disagreed. He quashed Wells' request and the medical exam paperwork was not introduced as evidence in the trial or mentioned to the jury.

The trial occurred in Sitka after the attorneys agreed the small jury pool in Angoon would present problems. Angoon is a city of 500 people on the west side of Admiralty Island, 55 miles southwest of Juneau and 41 miles northeast of Sitka.

The trial ended at 12:30 p.m. Friday with the haunting words of Starr's 6-year-old child.

Juneau prosecutor Pat Gullufsen quoted the child, Kendra, telling criminal investigators that her mother got a knife, cut her father's back, and then "he went at heaven."

Her mother faces sentencing on three counts - two felony counts of second degree murder and one misdemeanor count of recklessly endangering her child, Starr, who was in her father's arms as he tried to leave the house.

In closing arguments Friday, Wells, Starr's public defender from Palmer, attempted to convince the jury of reasonable doubt, explaining to them that the stabbing could have been an accident.

He said Starr may have fetched the knife from the kitchen for her own protection. Then he said Starr and George may have struggled over the knife and Starr tripped over him, plunging the knife into his back.

Some in the audience interpreted Wells' comments as connoting that George allowed himself to be killed.

At that moment, the victim's mother, Barbara George, stood up and started crying out, repeatedly, "She killed him. She killed him." As she pushed her way out of the courtroom, she cried, "She killed him in cold blood."

Wells lost his place in his speech, but he regained it and then explained to the jury that a fatal accident with the knife either had no criminal culpability or could be ruled as manslaughter.

Wells argued that Starr was not in her right mind at the time of the stabbing. She had been knocked to the floor by George while they were arguing and hit her head hard against the floor, he said.

Wells also said the lateral knife wound in George's back was not consistent with the up-and-down, deliberate stabbing thrust described by prosecutor Gullufsen. The lateral wound could have resulted from a struggle and Starr tripping over her boyfriend, Wells said.

During the last moments of the trial, Starr sat with her eyes cast forward or down and her face still. Members of the George family also sat motionless, each in a posture of anxiety and grief. One leaned forward with her face pressed into her steepled hands. Another fell back in her chair with her hands to her lips.

When the jury read its guilty verdict, Starr began breathing heavily and gradually broke into silent sobs.

The George family gathered in an open area of the courthouse, and many hugged. Others pulled out their cell phones and cried out the guilty verdict to their friends.

Gullufsen said, "I think the jury did a great job. It's a great verdict."

Wells said, "I've been doing this long enough that I'm not surprised by what a jury does. I think there were ... problems with the case, but obviously the jury felt differently."

Starr is scheduled to be sentenced at 11 a.m. on Dec. 6 in Sitka Superior Court.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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