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Court rejects St. Paul man's appeal based on 'jury of peers'

Megan Holland

The Alaska Court of Appeals has rejected a St. Paul man's effort to have his assault conviction overturned because a lower court judge moved his trial from his remote Bering Sea island, far from a jury of local people.

Gregory Lestenkof, 44, had argued that his case should have been heard by a jury on St. Paul and that any attempt to replicate a jury of his peers elsewhere wasn't fair because the Alaska Natives on St. Paul are unique.

The judges on the state Court of Appeals rejected Lestenkof's claim in a 2-to-1 decision issued Friday. Judge Joel Bolger and David Mannheimer upheld the conviction; Chief Judge Robert Coats wanted to order a new trial.

The case raises the issue of how to balance selecting a jury in a small, remote Bush village where many people are related or know of a case, with the defendant's right to a jury of his peers.

Lestenkof was charged with assaulting a woman in June 2006 at his home. He left his victim with a swollen, purple face, two black eyes and bleeding in her brain. He was charged with second-degree assault.

Lestenkof wanted the trial on his island of 500 people that lies 300 miles from shore. Despite repeated efforts by Superior Court Judge William Morse, who flew in from Anchorage to conduct the trial, not enough jurors could be found.

Morse made a radio announcement, and the court clerk enlisted neighbors to knock on the doors of prospective jurors. But still only 70 percent of those summoned for jury duty showed up.

For those who did show, most were related to the defendant or the victim or had heard of the case -- it was, after all, the talk of the island.

Lestenkof wanted Morse to do more. He wanted the judge to charter a plane to St. George Island, about 50 miles away, to bring in additional jurors. Morse declined. Lestenkof asked that the judge agree to a less than 12-person jury. Morse declined.

Morse concluded that getting 12 unbiased people was not going to happen. He relocated the trial to Dillingham, 450 miles away on the mainland.

Bolger and Mannheimer concluded Morse did everything reasonably possible to get a jury on St. Paul. But Coats said more could have and should have been done.

Lestenkof had tried to argue that the residents of St. Paul are a distinctive group of peers, different from other Alaska Natives. In his dissenting opinion, Coats agreed with him, saying that St. Paul is the largest Aleut community in the United States and Natives on the island have a distinctive culture and history.

Coats wrote it is critical that Lestenkof "be tried in the area where he was known and where he was part of the culture. Also, for the residents of St. Paul, it was important for them to see that justice was done and to participate in the justice system."

Lestenkof has the option to take the case to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.

PDF: Appeals Court opinion
By MEGAN HOLLAND
mholland@adn.com