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Will Feds pursue death penalty for alleged Kodiak murderer James Wells?

Laurel Andrews

Federal prosecutors may yet pursue the death penalty for the man who allegedly murdered two U.S. Coast Guard employees on Alaska's Kodiak Island in April.

Karen Loeffler, U.S. Attorney for the District of Alaska, gave no estimate on when the decision will be made, telling Alaska Dispatch this week the decision process “takes a long time.” Meanwhile, James Wells, the alleged killer, has a trial date set for spring 2014, contingent on whether the U.S. Attorney General grants approval for prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

Last month, Wells pleaded not guilty to federal charges for the murders of Richard Belisle and James Hopkins -- a crime he allegedly committed at least in part to mounting tensions between him and his co-workers at the Coast Guard's Kodiak base.

On Wednesday, the 61-year-old appeared in Anchorage's federal court for a trial rescheduling hearing. He entered the mostly-empty courtroom in a worn yellow shirt and dirtied yellow pants. His head now shaved and beard trimmed, Wells looked less disheveled and more composed than at his indictment hearing. He scanned those sitting in the courtroom, expressionless, before the hearing began. Belisle's widow, Nicola Belisle, was one of the few people in attendance. 

The “interest of justice and complexity of the case” overrules the right to a speedy trial, federal prosecutor Daniel Cooper said. He cited significant work ahead for the prosecution team, including sifting through some four terabytes of electronic materials and at least 120 hours of audio interviews.

The defense agreed to rescheduling. “If this is not authorized as a capital case, we’ll be ready a year from now,” said Rich Curtner, Wells' lawyer.

U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline agreed to declare the case complex, and set a trial date for Feb. 17, 2014, a year from the date Wells was indicted. He said that if it is approved as a capital case, then the date will need to be extended, as “we enter into a whole new realm of issues.” 

Will the feds seek death penalty?

On April 12, Belisle and Hopkins were found dead shortly after their shift began at 7 a.m. at the rigger shop where they worked alongside Wells repairing antenna at Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak. While Wells was identified as a suspect early on, 10 months passed before his arrest.

During that time, the crime rattled some residents of Kodiak Island, who worried about a killer on the loose, and drew national interest within the tightly-knit Coast Guard community. Now, the case is garnering attention over the possibility that, if found guilty, Wells could be sentenced to death.

The death penalty was abolished in Alaska in 1957, two years before the then-U.S. territory became a state. Yet prosecutors can still seek the death penalty for cases tried in federal court. Wells faces six counts in court federal court, four of which are punishable by death: Two counts of murder in the first degree, and two counts of murder of an officer or employee of the U.S.

Loeffler said there’s been “no case that I’m aware of in the last 25 years where the death penalty was actually sought at trial” in Alaska.

However, the death penalty was approved, and would have been sought, by prosecutors in the high-profile case against Joshua Wade, an Anchorage man convicted of killing his neighbor, nurse Mindy Schloss, in 2007. Because the case was tried in federal court and because the charges also involved a car-jacking, Wade was eligible for the death penalty. But eventually Wade cut a deal in which he pleaded guilty to the murder, and the federal prosecutors agreed to not seek the death penalty.  

As for Wells, Loeffler will at some point make a recommendation to the U.S. Attorney General’s Capital Review Committee in Washington, D.C. Ultimately, the decision of whether to pursue the death penalty lies with the U.S. Attorney General, she added.

Each step along the way involves a thorough review, and “none of these things are or should be done quickly in any way,” Loeffler said.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com