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Alaska news briefs

Posted: Friday, November 30, 2001

Plaintiffs want appeals court to overturn earlier ruling

ANCHORAGE Plaintiffs in the Exxon Valdez oil spill damage lawsuit have asked the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a ruling by a three-judge panel of that court that the $5 billion in punitive damages ordered by an Anchorage jury is too high.

The three-judge appeals panel ruled three weeks ago that the punitive damage award was excessive, and sent it back to a lower court for a new calculation of what Exxon should pay commercial fishermen, Alaska Natives, property owners and others harmed by the nation's worst oil spill, which occurred in 1989.

The appeals panel was wrong to look simply at the ratio between actual damages and punitive damages awarded by the 1994 Anchorage jury, the plaintiffs' latest motion argues. That calculation would exclude several hundred million dollars that Exxon Corp. paid in compensation before the trial began in 1994, the plaintiffs' lawyers say.

"The panel's approach boils down to the troubling proposition that a defendant whose reckless conduct causes obvious and catastrophic damage leaving it no choice but to make immediate and substantial payments to clean up the mess will automatically owe less in punitive damages," the plaintiffs' lawyers argue in their motion.

Air France jet dumped 30 tons of fuel near Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS An Air France jet dumped 30 tons of fuel southeast of Fairbanks but the discharge probably evaporated before it reached the ground, state and federal officials said.

The incident occurred Nov. 17 when the pilot released the fuel after losing a wheel on takeoff from Fairbanks International Airport. The pilot didn't want a plane full of fuel when returning for an emergency landing, an airport official said.

The fuel left the aircraft in a stream at an elevation of about 12,000 feet, said Walt Sandel, an environmental specialist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"I'd really be surprised if any hits the ground," Sandel told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "It's similar to gasoline. It's like having a spill out on the water you get some wind across it and it volatilizes quickly."

The fuel fell over a designated dump site 35 miles south of Eielson Air Force Base, the airport said.

Murder suspect's attorney claims police coercion

ANCHORAGE Claiming police coercion, an attorney for an Anchorage murder suspect has asked a judge to throw out incriminating comments made by his client and secretly taped by two friends.

Defense attorney Cindy Strout said the friends agreed to tape a conversation with Joshua Wade after police threatened to send them to prison if they refused to cooperate.

Evidence obtained by police coercion is unconstitutional and should be ruled inadmissible, Strout argued Thursday in Anchorage Superior Court.

Wade, 20, is scheduled for trial in January on charges he beat Della McFarlin Brown, 33, to death on Sept., 2, 2000, with a rock and a shovel.

Wade was arrested after the two friends told police he had described Brown's death to them in detail. They agreed to wear wires during a conversation in which Wade said he killed Brown.

When first questioned, the informants denied knowing anything about the slaying.

Strout said they later agreed to talk to police, but only after Sgt. Ken Spadafora, then head of homicide at the Anchorage Police Department, told them they "need to give me a statement or I'll see you go to jail for 300 years."

The threat raises questions about the truthfulness of the story the informants eventually told, Strout said.

Assistant District Attorney Mary Anne Henry said both informants testified at the time and have since repeated that they didn't feel coerced.

Judge Mike Wolverton reserved his ruling on the suppression request.

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