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Courtroom erupts as defendant tries to flee Alaska barista trial

Ben Anderson
Photo courtesy Alaska Police Department

A hearing in the case of Israel Keyes, accused of kidnapping and murdering Anchorage barista Samantha Koenig, strayed far from routine Wednesday as Keyes attempted to break for the door before being subdued by a half dozen U.S. marshals and courtroom bailiffs. A taser was deployed.

The hearing, a discussion about whether or not to declare the case complex and to set a timeline for trial, had been proceeding routinely. Keyes sat mostly motionless as Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank Russo  discussed the possibility of the government seeking the death penalty.

Keyes, 34, is charged with kidnapping resulting in the death of 18-year-old Samantha Koenig, who was  abducted from a coffee stand in Anchorage on Feb. 1. Charges against Keyes allege that he kidnapped Koenig before stealing a debit card and killing her. Keyes was arrested in Texas after allegedly withdrawing money using the debit card in Alaska and several Southwest states.

Many guards

Keyes is also charged with receiving and possessing ransom money as well as access-device fraud -- a charge related to his alleged use of the debit card.

Keyes occasionally glanced around the courtroom on Wednesday, but he had done that in previous hearings as well. Nearby, both in front of and behind the railing separating Keyes from the spectator area, stood four guards. Others were positioned elsewhere in the courtroom.

Russo explained to U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess why the government was seeking a trial date within about 10 months; the prosecution had previously applied for a trial date of March 2013. Russo said that although there was a large amount of discovery evidence in the case, 90 percent of it wasn’t pertinent to the key facts.

The evidence in the case would be easy to sort through “when you cut the wheat from the chaff,” Russo said.

He added that the Victims’ Rights Act was in effect, which gives victims -- or in the case of murder victims, their families -- the right to a speedy trial. Several of Koenig’s family members were in the courtroom Wednesday, including her father James Koenig and mother Darlene Christiansen.

“The family is in court today,” Russo said, indicating toward the court observers,” Mr. Koenig has expressed to me that he certainly wants closure.”

Asked by Burgess what the timeline would be for the trial if the government decided to pursue the death penalty -- a possibility in this case, since Keyes is charged in federal court and not Alaska state court -- Russo said the government would have to file that motion 150 days before the trial, or about five months.

The defense, on the other hand, is seeking a trial date about two years out, based on the possible pursuit of the death penalty by the government.

Quickly taken down

As Jacqueline Walsh, one of Keyes’s three attorneys, began to make her case for why the defense was seeking a trial date as much as two years away, Keyes turned and lunged over the railing into the spectator area of the courtroom and past the four men positioned around him. Seconds later, he was grabbed and taken down into the second row of seats.

He never made a sound, even as he was forced down and continued fighting.

Those sitting in their seats stood up, with many immediately moving to the other side of the courtroom. One woman yelled, “Kill him!” while the guards wrestled Keyes to his back on the armrests of chairs. A taser was deployed and Keyes stopped struggling, surrounded.

The whole incident was over quickly, perhaps due to the number of guards in the courtroom, more than had been present at previous hearings.

David Long, supervisory deputy with the U.S. Marshal's Service, said that Keyes had managed to break his leg irons, which he described as being made up of steel chain. It wasn't clear how Keyes managed to get out of the irons without attracting the attention of the guards around him.

Long said that the number of marshals present "depends on the hearing or the situation," but wouldn't discuss specifics of what merits additional security. He also couldn't say what extra measures might be taken at future hearings. Asked whether Keyes would have to be handcuffed for later court appearances, Long said that it's up to the judge to decide, if the marshals request it.

Overall, Long said that the amount of security Wednesday was adequate.

"We had it pretty good today, and (Keyes) didn’t get very far," Long said. "There’s not much you can do when a guy leaps like that."

Some in the courtroom began sobbing after the incident, and the room was cleared. Spectators milled around in the vestibule before word came back that the hearing had been postponed until 2 p.m. Friday.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com