Smithart murder conviction overturned

State Supreme Court orders new trial in notorious case

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 1999

ANCHORAGE (AP) - The Alaska Supreme Court on Friday ordered a new trial for Charles Smithart, a Glennallen-area man convicted in one of the state's most notorious crimes of the decade: the kidnapping, rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl in 1991.

The justices ruled unanimously that a lower-court judge erred by not allowing Smithart, now 69, to argue at his 1993 trial that another man kidnapped Mandy Lemaire on a remote road in Tazlina, killed her and dumped her body on a wooded bluff a mile away.

Superior Court Judge Glen Anderson had ruled that the defendant's lawyers didn't have enough potential evidence against the other man, David DeForest, to be able to point the finger at him during the trial.

But the Supreme Court disagreed, saying Anderson had set too high a hurdle.

``We believe that these limitations hampered Smithart's ability to defend himself,'' wrote Justice Dana Fabe.

Anderson said the defendant was free to suggest in general that someone else committed the crime, but not DeForest specifically.

DeForest was one of the state's key witnesses against Smithart, testifying that he saw Smithart's truck turn onto the road where Mandy was last seen.

The justices didn't address the strength of the evidence against DeForest. But they said that because he may have had ulterior motives in helping prosecutors, the defense should have been given more leeway in presenting evidence to impeach his testimony.

Defense attorney Andrew Lambert had asserted that he could prove, among other things, that DeForest was at the scene of Mandy's disappearance and that his workplace was a plausible source of paint chips and metal fragments found on or near the girl's body.

DeForest could not reached by phone Friday.

Eric Johnson, who heads the state Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, said Smithart would definitely be tried again for Mandy's slaying.

``The Supreme Court opinion does not change our view of the weight of evidence (against Smithart),'' he said.

Mandy's father, David Lemaire, said Smithart's triumph before the high court caught him completely offguard.

``I really didn't think they had a leg to stand on,'' Lemaire said. ``If there was a continuous thread of evidence that someone else had been involved, I would understand this... It's a blue-smoke-and-mirrors game (the defense was) allowed to win.''

But Lambert said Friday that the defense isn't obliged to make a conclusive case against DeForest in order to accuse him.

``If we have evidence linking someone to a crime or raising a suspicion, that's the type of evidence we're entitled to present,'' he said.

Lemaire said the Supreme Court ruling tore open his family's wounds.

``It's a start all over from where we were eight years ago,'' he said. ``It's putting the victims through all that turmoil again, and that not fair.''

Smithart, who lived in the Native village of Copper Center, was sentenced to 114 years in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder, sexual assault and kidnapping. He is serving his time at a prison in Arizona and will not be released prior to his second trial, Johnson said.

Mandy Lemaire was kidnapped Aug. 22, 1991, while walking along a thinly traveled road near her Tazlina home. Her body was found 10 days later. She had been shot in the head twice.

Along with DeForest's testimony against Smithart, another person testified she spotted Smithart's truck a few hours later not far from where the body was found. Other evidence included carpet fibers found in his truck and on Mandy's body. Two blond hairs matching the girl's were also found in his truck.

Smithart strenuously asserted his innocence from the start. When the jury read its verdict, he angrily accused the all-white jury of being racists.

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