Appeals courts reverses conviction for lack of villagers on jury

Richard Mauer

In a decision reaffirming the right to a trial by a jury of one's peers, the Alaska Court of Appeals threw out the conviction Friday of a Tuluksak man because a fierce December storm prevented villagers from serving at his trial in Bethel.

The appellate court ordered a new trial on assault and resisting arrest for the defendant, Harry Napoka.

Napoka, 48, was convicted by a Bethel jury in 2010 of assaulting a police officer in Tuluksak, 50 miles from Bethel, who had stopped him for suspected drunken driving. The jury also found him guilty of resisting arrest.

But Napoka's attorney argued that jury selection was improper.

Normally when a village resident is tried in Bethel, the unanimous appeals court decision noted, the court system summons potential jurors from Bethel and the 12 villages that are within 50 miles of Bethel, a group that includes Tuluksak. Jury pools normally tend to be split 50-50 between Bethel residents and villagers, the court said.

However, as Napoka's trial began, an early December storm struck the region and planes were grounded.

The trial judge, Natalie Finn, now retired, made sure that some of the Bethel jurors who were selected for the trial had spent time in villages. But that wasn't good enough, the unanimous decision said.

"We conclude that the trial court abused its discretion by not continuing the jury selection for a couple of days to wait for the storm to abate so that the village jurors could travel to Bethel and be included in the jury pool," the judges said.

As it turned out, the trial wouldn't have been significantly delayed had Finn waited for the storm to clear, the judges noted. Key witnesses in Napoka's trial were delayed by the storm as well, and that set back the trial by a day or two anyway until planes could fly again.

In making its ruling, the appellate court cited the right to a jury trial enshrined in both the U.S. and Alaska constitutions.

"This right includes the right to have a the pool of potential jurors drawn from a fair cross-section of the community," the decision said.

In Alaska, that means "if a crime is committed in a village and the defendant is to be tried in a nearby urban area, the jury pool must include people who reside in villages," the decision said. "The (Alaska) supreme court based this holding on what it described as the 'profound' differences of 'occupation, economy, domestic relations, politics, language, religion, race, cultural heritage, and geography' that distinguish village life from life in urban areas."

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