Juneau man may be retried for murder

Court reverses conviction in 2000 beating death

Posted: Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The man sentenced to 85 years in prison for the 2000 Juneau beating death of Kenneth Ike Thomas could get a second trial much like the one that led jurors to find him guilty three years ago, according to a state prosecutor.

Ronald E. Smith's conviction was reversed by the Alaska Court of Appeals earlier this month. The original criminal charges remain against Smith, now 37, who is still behind bars.

He was found guilty in December 2000 of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and first-degree robbery relating to Thomas' death 11 months earlier near Willoughby Street. Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks sentenced him to 50 years for the murder, plus 20 years for the robbery and 15 years for the assault against Alfred Torres, Thomas' half brother.

Co-defendant Rey Joel Soto was not part of the appeal. He was sentenced to 85 years in prison with 40 years suspended.

Douglas Kossler, from the state Department of Law's office of special prosecutions and appeals in Anchorage, said the state has filed notice that it will petition for the state Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court.

Senior Attorney Richard Svobodny, a state prosecutor in Juneau, said that if the appellate decision stands, "there is a very high likelihood" that Smith would be tried again for the Thomas murder.

"Certainly people are going to be difficult to find," Svobodny said of witnesses. But already, all but one of the original prosecution witnesses have been located, in the event the Supreme Court does not uphold the original conviction, he added.

The one witness who Svobodny said can't be found - Caroline Gerken - was at the center of the appellate decision reversing the verdict.

Gerken testified that her boyfriend, Zachary Brown, had told her he gave a shotgun to Smith and Soto before the robbery and murder and later cleaned blood from it.

Brown did not testify at the trial, invoking his constitutional right not to incriminate himself.

The appeals court ruled that Judge Weeks should not have allowed the hearsay statement - Gerken's testimony to something she heard. The appeals court ruled that Brown could have testified to that without violating his self-interest, so the hearsay statement should not have been admitted.

The appeals court ruled that it could not find Weeks' admission of the testimony a "harmless error beyond reasonable doubt," finding that the question of whether Smith had armed himself before going to Thomas' home could have been critical for the jury.

Attorneys for Thomas and Soto argued at the trial that there was no robbery, that the defendants had gone to Thomas' trailer home to purchase marijuana. Smith testified that Thomas had initiated an assault on him.

Svobodny said information about the shotgun, which Torres said he saw, was not critical to the case. He said Smith was charged "before we had the information where the shotgun came from."

He also said there could be other ways to introduce the same element of the evidence.

• Tony Carroll can be found at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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