Smith defense could wrap up its case Monday

Dept. of Corrections ordered to send witness down from Anchorage

Posted: Sunday, October 02, 2005

With some cooperation from the Alaska Department of Corrections, the defense could wrap up its case Monday in the second trial for a man charged in Juneau's last murder, which was more than five years ago.

The state's refusal to transport one witness to Juneau to testify in Ronald Smith's defense Friday led Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks to say he could be forced to dismiss the case. But after jurors were sent home for the weekend, prosecutor Richard Svobodny told the judge that Anchorage corrections officers had told him the problem would be corrected.

Smith, now 39, was found guilty in December 2000 of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and first-degree robbery, along with Rey Soto, in the beating death of 36-year-old Kenneth Ike Thomas at the beginning of the year outside a trailer on Village Street off of Willoughby Avenue downtown.

Smith's conviction was overturned by the Alaska Court of Appeals, which determined evidence about a shotgun Smith allegedly displayed in the crime was improperly introduced at trial.

Defense attorney Kirsten Swanson began presenting her case Friday, calling Juneau police officers to ask them about their work in the investigation. She told the judge that one scheduled witness reported being sick and another, Doug Johnson, who is in prison, was still in Anchorage.

Weeks later told the attorneys he had received a telephone call from a corrections officer in Anchorage who said state law prevented transferring Johnson to Juneau until payment for the move was received.

Weeks said both the Alaska and U.S. constitutions give defendants a right to call witnesses on their behalf. Without the witness, he would have to declare a mistrial, he added. He ordered the Department of Corrections to transfer Johnson.

"If necessary, the court will dismiss the case if Mr. Johnson is not here," he said.

Svobodny, Alaska senior attorney, told jurors during his opening that the law makes people committing a robbery responsible for the murder of people who die during the robbery.

Witnesses he called Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday included the alleged assault victim, Alfred Torres. Torres said he answered the door to the trailer where he was staying at about 4 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2000, to find two men in ski masks, one pointing a shotgun at him.

He said he grabbed the gun, and his brother, Thomas, ran outside, where he was hit by the other man with a baseball bat.

Soto, serving a 30-year prison sentence, also testified to being the man with the baseball bat. He said Smith told him what they were going to do, and they left with about $30 and six-gram baggies of marijuana.

Swanson asked police officers what they remembered from the trailer.

"What I mainly remember was blood in the snow outside the trailer door," Officer George Gozelski said.

Swanson asked him about another officer finding marijuana. Weeks earlier overruled Svobodny's objection to the question being asked. Swanson told the judge she wanted to introduce the evidence to show why the people in the trailer wouldn't be forthcoming with police.

Weeks sustained Svobodny's objection, though, when Swanson asked Gozelski if he knew at what price marijuana was selling.

Under cross-examination, Gozelski said he had no knowledge of how the marijuana got in the trailer or who owned it.

"It could have been there since the trailer was manufactured, as far as you know," Svobodny asked.

"That is correct," the officer answered.

Albert Thompson testified that he lent Smith the black Lincoln that Smith was found driving after the crime. He recalled leaving things in the car, including a pool cue and a knit hat. "A lot of junk," he added. "My wife had stuff. There was a lot of stuff."

In cross-examination, Svobodny showed him the knit ski masks police found in the back seat after they stopped Smith and Soto in the Mendenhall Valley. Thompson said they weren't his. Answering further questions, he said he hadn't left some other things seized by police, including a baseball bat and a 12-inch knife.

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