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Rare legislative subpoena at center of political fight over jail death video

A rare legislative demand for evidence was issued by a Senate committee seeking video related to the death of a prisoner, but was rescinded by Senate President Kevin Meyer -- who said he thought better of the subpoena after first approving it.

The evidence was sought by Anchorage Republican Sen. Lesil McGuire, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, from an attorney in her husband's law firm who represented the prisoner's family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the state.

McGuire said she believes the judiciary committee needs to see the video, which reportedly shows the last days of Davon Mosley's life as recorded from a solitary confinement cell at the Anchorage Jail.

In a June memo asking for the subpoena, she called the case "one of the most egregious cases of apparent prisoner abuse" in Alaska.

"The way in which he died is unacceptable," she said.

A rarely-invoked power

Legislative committees can subpoena witnesses or documents under state law if a majority of members agree, along with the presiding officer of the body -- in this case Sen. Meyer, an Anchorage Republican.

But use of such power is rare. The last time legislative subpoenas were issued was during the Troopergate investigation of then-Gov. Sarah Palin, in 2008, said Meyer.

Making it more extraordinary is McGuire's marriage to the law partner of the attorney being subpoenaed.

McGuire asked to have attorney Robert Campbell hand over the video under the subpoena in a memo to her committee in June.

She disclosed that the Mosley family was represented by her husband Jason Skala's law firm.

"I have talked to Jay in very general terms about the case but have no special or non-public knowledge about the case," McGuire wrote in the June memo. "Rather, I became aware of the case generally through Jay and his partner Robert Campbell's work on it; and now that the case has been settled I believe it is of vital public interest to hold hearings on this and other examples of apparent Department of Corrections abuse toward prisoners."

She wrote that because the case had already been settled, she and her husband had no potential financial gain from the video's release.

Doug Gardner, the director of legal services for the Legislature, wrote in a July 17 memo that the broadly-worded subpoena could potentially net documents from other pending cases against the state, specifically another inmate wrongful death suit in Barrow in which Robert Campbell and Jason Skala were representing the family.

An attorney representing the North Slope Borough Police Department in that case had complained the subpoena could keep the defendants from receiving a fair trial, he wrote.

The subpoena was issued June 28. Senate President Kevin Meyer rescinded it July 22. He said he was worried it could jeopardize the other pending cases.

"It got to the point where it looked like it could potentially be kind of a messy situation," he said in a phone interview.

McGuire's personal connection to the case also bothered him.

"That close relationship kind of weighed on me. As well as the fact that these other cases were going on out there."

He said he hadn't talked to McGuire since he stopped the subpoena but believed she was probably "displeased."

A death in solitary confinement

Davon Mosley was a 20-year-old bipolar and schizophrenic man who died at the Anchorage Jail on April 4, 2014. Mosley had been held in solitary confinement for weeks before his death, without contact with his family.

His death was officially blamed on bleeding ulcers, but his family said they found signs of abuse on his body.

The DOC has refused to release surveillance video of him taken in his cell in the days before his death.

But in the course of the lawsuit, the video was eventually given to the attorneys for the Mosley family.

The family settled with the state for $625,000 earlier this year, according to Vernesia Gordon, the mother of Mosley's three children.

The video was to remain confidential under the terms of the agreement, so the lawyers involved could face repercussions for releasing it if not compelled to do so by a subpoena.

Gordon has seen it.

She said it shows disturbing scenes of Mosley apparently in the grips of psychosis and worsening physical illness.

His food is thrown at him, she said. At one point, he disappears from the footage and returns to his cell four hours later, completely naked.

"He was pepper sprayed," she said.

Toward the end of the footage supplied, "Davon just started getting weaker and weaker," she said, not even able to open a carton of milk.

Later, "his body was shaking so badly all the milk spilled from the cup," Gordon said.

"The day he died he was basically sitting in the same spot for like three hours before they even went in to look at him," she said.

McGuire said she has not been deterred in her effort to see the video released to the judiciary committee.

Her interest in the case, she said, is part of a broader focus on reforming Alaska's criminal justice and correctional system.

She wants to introduce legislation requiring body cameras on more law enforcement personnel, as well as restoring training to correctional officers -- who've long said they are charged with managing far more prisoners with less training than in the past.

In getting the video, her first option is to appeal directly to Department of Corrections commissioner Ron Taylor. Her staff has had "productive" discussions with his office, she said.

If he doesn't agree, she said she'll try to issue another, less broadly-worded subpoena.

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