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ANCHORAGE - A decision by the Alaska Court of Appeals could result in more criminal trials being held in small towns around the Alaska Bush instead of Fairbanks or Bethel, the only places in the sprawling Fourth Judicial District that have sitting Superior Court judges. The same reasoning would apply to other regions of the state.
The three-judge Court of Appeals said it had made a mistake in an earlier case. That error led Superior Court Judge Ralph Beistline to try Virgil John of Tetlin in Fairbanks, 200 miles from his home, rejecting John's request to move the proceeding to Tok, about 20 miles from Tetlin.
As a result, the appeals court overturned John's conviction on a charge of sexual abuse of a minor and sent it back for retrial.
The issue dates back to a 1971 ruling by the Alaska Supreme Court, which decided Bush dwellers couldn't get a fair trial by their peers in larger cities because of the "profound cultural differences (that) exist between the Native villages and urban areas of Alaska."
The state's highest court ruled that "the Alaska Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to have a jury selected from a pool that represents 'a fair cross section of the community in which the trial occurred,' " Judge David Stewart noted in his opinion.
The Alaska Supreme Court then split the state into 25 districts, each centered around a community where felony trials could be held.
But the Court of Appeals decided in a later case that the court intended such trials should be held in a community that has a resident judge who can try the case. That meant felony criminal trials in the Fourth Judicial District were being held in Fairbanks and Barrow, the only communities in that district that have resident Superior Court judges.
As the Court of Appeals admits, it was that court's own guidance that Beistline followed in refusing to move John's trial to Tok.
But in the opinion handed down Friday, the Appeals Court reasoned the presence of a resident Superior Court judge wasn't what the state's highest court had in mind, or else it would not have set up 25 districts for such criminal trials. Half of those district don't have Superior Court judges in residence at all.
And, it noted, the smaller districts are consistent with giving rural residents a trial in communities more like their own.
"We now hold that when a felony is committed within one of the 25 Superior Court venue districts drawn by the Supreme Court, the trial should presumptively be held in the city or town identified by the Supreme Court as the felony trial site of that district - even though that city or town may have no resident Superior Court judge," Stewart's opinion said.