Alaska high court refuses to hear murder appeal

Lisa Demer

A convicted murderer hoping for a new trial because of an unorthodox jury experiment during his original trial has lost his bid before the state Supreme Court.

In its one-sentence dismissal, the court's majority didn't talk about the issues of the case, a Fairbanks homicide. Rather, the justices said they shouldn't have agreed to hear Kevin Pease's appeal in the first place and said they were dismissing his petition after the fact. Lawyers already had filed lengthy legal papers and had argued the case before the Supreme Court.

Pease's defense lawyer says that's the easy way out. "This avoids them having to rule on the merits in a case that is very highly charged in a number of different ways here in Fairbanks," said Lori Bodwell.

The order means Pease won't get a new trial through any state appeal. He could try in federal court.

This sort of dismissal is unusual, but not unheard of, said Anchorage lawyer Jeff Feldman, who is not involved in the Pease case. The U.S. Supreme Court sometimes does the same thing. Justices agree to hear cases based on limited information, and after a fuller review may decide "we ought not to wander into this case and disturb what's already been decided," Feldman said.

Walter Carpeneti, now the chief justice, Dana Fabe, and retired justice Warren Matthews ruled that Pease's petition to the high court was "improvidently granted." Matthews was on the court when Pease appealed though he was absent the day lawyers argued the case.

Two other justices disagreed with the majority.

The murder occurred nearly 12 years ago.

One night back in 1997 in Fairbanks, Pease and three others, all teens or young men at the time, accosted 15-year-old John Hartman while on the prowl, according to prosecutors. Hartman was kicked in the head and sexually assaulted; he died the next day. A lawyer for the state called it a "wilding."

The trials were moved to Anchorage because of all the furor over the case in Fairbanks. Racial tensions -- all the defendants except Pease are Alaska Native and Hartman was white -- have continued all these years.

All four defendants were convicted in the fatal beating.

During the trial of Pease and a co-defendant, deliberating jurors stepped outside to test whether an eye-witness to a mugging earlier in the night could have seen what he described on the witness stand. But neither the judge nor the lawyers on either side knew of the experiment.

The experiment was uncovered years later by University of Alaska Fairbanks journalism students on assignment for professor Brian O'Donoghue, who had his doubts about the convictions since his days as an editor for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

Justices Robert Eastaugh and Daniel Winfree disagreed with Wednesday's order. Eastaugh said that Pease deserved a new trial because of what he called jury misconduct that could have influenced the verdict. Winfree said the jury issue needed a full-blown hearing in Superior Court which might show that Pease indeed deserved a new trial.

A Fairbanks judge had granted Pease a new trial based on the jury's actions, but the state Court of Appeals overturned that ruling.

William Hawley, an assistant attorney general who argued the case before the Supreme Court, declined to comment.

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