Crime & Courts

Lawyer for Anchorage adoptive mother accused of abuse can't quit, judge decides

An Anchorage Superior Court judge on Thursday denied the request of Anya James' fifth defense attorney to quit the case, saying her long-delayed criminal trial needs to proceed as scheduled, even if the defendant and her lawyer aren't on speaking terms.

James is the 56-year-old Anchorage woman arrested in 2011 for allegedly beating, starving and abusing six of the children she adopted from foster care at a sprawling Hillside home while collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in state subsidies for their care. She faces 16 felony counts of assault and kidnapping.

[Related: Anchorage woman charged with abuse of adopted kids]

James has been out on bail for more than five years, awaiting a trial that has been rescheduled 27 times.

The delays have outraged victims' advocates.  

At Thursday's hearing, attorney Lance C. Wells said he has seldom asked to withdraw from a case but communication with his client had broken down, making it impossible for him to prepare for a complex trial now scheduled for February 2017.

Wells is a private attorney who is representing James as her court-appointed lawyer through a contract with the state Office of Public Advocacy.

He told the judge that he and his client couldn't share information or communicate and that she had made it clear she wouldn't work with him to prepare for trial, according to court log notes from the hearing.

In an opposition to Wells' motion to withdraw, an attorney with the state Office of Victims' Rights wrote that James' case is the "oldest on the criminal docket" and that its continued delay means civil litigation on behalf of the victims is also on hold. In Alaska, crime victims have a constitutional right to a "timely disposition" of their case.

"If the court permits defense attorney Lance Wells to withdraw, Ms. James will similarly be permitted to control and manipulate the proceedings," the attorneys wrote. "She could have future defense attorneys serially removed by refusing to communicate with them at strategically advantageous moments. Disposition could be delayed indefinitely."

Delays in the case have in part festered because of the massive trove of evidence involved. At the hearing, Wells said the evidence in the case filled 17 banker boxes and two hard drives. Most attorneys have needed almost a year to review all the evidence, assistant district attorney Jenna Gruenstein said at the hearing.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Paul Olson said refusing to communicate with her attorney didn't entitle James to a new attorney provided by the state.

The trial has a "firm" date of February 2017. He called the case a prime example of why victims are supposed to be guaranteed a "timely disposition" of their case, according to the log notes.

Olson is due to retire in January. That means the trial, when it happens, will happen before a different judge.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a reporter who covers news and features about life in Alaska, and has been focusing on corrections and psychiatric care issues in the state. Contact her at