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Appeals court upholds murder conviction of Nome officer

The Alaska Court of Appeals has upheld the conviction of a Nome police officer accused of killing a 19-year-old while he was on duty in 2003.

Matthew Owens, in the second trial of the case, was found guilty of murder in 2005 by a Kotzebue jury and sentenced by a Superior Court judge to 101 years in prison for killing Sonya Ivanoff. His first trial in Nome had ended in a hung jury.

The three appeals court judges upheld his conviction in their decision issued this week.

The case drew statewide attention and eventually led to the Sonya Ivanoff Act mandating that a peace officer convicted of murder be sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Ivanoff moved from Unalakleet to Nome in 2002. She disappeared Aug. 11, 2003. The last time she was seen, she was getting into a police car. Owens was one of two officers on duty that day.

Her body was found a couple of days later three miles from downtown Nome. She had been shot in the head and stripped of her clothes except for a single sock. The scene had been cleaned of potential evidence.

But traces of her clothing were later found burned in a fire pit 75 miles from Nome. In the same pit Alaska State Troopers found a key that belonged to Owens' uncle.

Owens was not able to account for his whereabouts at the time of the Ivanoff murder. His ex-wife also testified that he told her about going to work to help look for a missing girl before Ivanoff was even reported missing.

A witness testified that Owens' friend told him he had seen Ivanoff's identification card in Owens' home. The card later showed up in a stolen police vehicle that had a note in it from Ivanoff's killer. Troopers say Owens stole the car and planted the note to thwart investigators from his trail. But investigators say the note was printed from a printer Owens had access to.

Owens brought the appeal to the higher court arguing several points, including that the evidence should not amount to a conviction. On this point, Appeals Judge David Mannheimer wrote that he disagreed with his colleagues, Judges Robert Coats and Joel Bolger, that the Appeals Court has the authority to disagree with a jury based on the weight of the evidence. "Our sole authority is to review a trial judge's earlier resolution of this issue," he wrote. He concurred with them, though, on all the other points upholding the conviction.

Owens can ask the Alaska Supreme Court to review the Appeals Court decision. But the Alaska Supreme Court agrees to address very few criminal cases.

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