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Prior attorney general opposed 'stand your ground' legislation

Richard Mauer

JUNEAU -- Two years ago, when the Legislature was debating the first incarnation of "stand your ground" legislation, then-Attorney General Dan Sullivan decried the bill as an invitation to violence.

Covering a broad swath of beliefs from religion to atheism, from conservatism to liberalism, Sullivan's unequivocal letter to the House Judiciary Committee, written by a subordinate, said the bill had no place in the statute books.

"Whatever source one thinks our laws should be drawn from -- the ten commandments which say 'thou shalt not kill,' simple morality, utilitarianism principles of the greater good, or simply the concept that life is sacred -- this bill would encourage the needless taking of human life," he wrote.

Last week, the current attorney general, Michael Geraghty, wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee that he supports the current version of the bill, House Bill 80. In his letter, Geraghty distanced himself not from Sullivan, but from a career Anchorage prosecutor, James Fayette, who last month paid his own way from Anchorage to Juneau to testify that the bill would only help criminals.

"We respect his right to express his views as a private citizen but there should be no confusion over whose views he purported to represent," Geraghty wrote. "Along with the 28 legislators who sponsored and co-sponsored this bill, the administration believes it has merit."

Both letters were written on state stationery with Gov. Sean Parnell's name at the top the first page.

What happened between 2010 and 2012?

Parnell "was unaware of" the 2010 letter from Sullivan, Parnell's spokeswoman, Sharon Leighow, said in an email. "The governor supports Alaskans' right to defend themselves. Should HB 80 pass in its current form, Governor Parnell will sign it."

"Stand your ground" bills are the focus of national attention because of the killing in Florida of 17-year-old boy by a neighborhood-watch volunteer. Though the facts of the shooting are in dispute, the neighborhood watch volunteer is citing Florida's stand-your-ground law, the first in the nation, to justify his actions.

Rep. Mark Neuman, a Big Lake Republican, sponsored the earlier bill, which died in the Senate at the end of the 2010 session. He reintroduced last year as House Bill 80, which passed the House overwhelmingly and is now in the Senate Finance Committee. If it fails again, Neuman said he will introduce it again next year if he's re-elected.

In its basic form, stand-your-ground laws allow anyone to use deadly force in self defense or to defend others in any place that person "has the right to be" -- in a car, on the sidewalk, walking through a mall.

Neuman's bill gives the same status to a public space as a person's home or workplace, where it's long been legal to shoot in self defense. The bill removes the "duty to retreat," which says a person must walk away from an armed confrontation -- but only when leaving can be done "with complete personal safety and with complete safety as to others being defended," as the current Alaska law reads.

Anchorage Democrat Hollis French, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a former state prosecutor, said Geraghty's March 28 letter arrived "out of the blue" after the bill cleared his committee.

"It was like 'doink' -- really, did you have to send that?" said French, an opponent of the bill. Geraghty's letter seemed to have been largely written to separate the department's official position in favor of the bill from the staunch opposition of prosecutor Fayette, a department employee, French said.

In his testimony, Fayette said gang members and other criminals would be harder to prosecute if the law was on the books because it would be too easy to claim self defense. Geraghty took exception to that position, but French said it's Fayette who knows what he's talking about.

Replying to Geraghty's letter, French noted that Fayette "regularly trains less experienced prosecutors in the nuances of self-defense law. He has represented the state of Alaska in prosecuting over a dozen murder cases, many of which involved defendants who, having killed someone, claimed self-defense. As an expert in the field, I deem Mr. Fayette's views as entitled to more weight than the views of non-experts."

Sullivan, now commissioner of natural resources, also cited specific cases that would have been difficult to prosecute under a stand your ground law. One was a homicide in which a hitchhiker killed the driver of the car that picked him up because he felt threatened but chose not to leave the car. The hitchhiker was convicted of second-degree murder.

"Why would we want to authorize the taking of a life when one could walk away in complete safety?" Sullivan asked.

A spokeswoman for Sullivan said he was in meetings but probably wouldn't comment. His letter also criticized provisions of the bill that were later removed. But Sullivan spent most of his letter attacking the central issue of removing the duty to retreat from current law.

Reach Richard Mauer at or (907) 500-7388.

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