Prosecutors called him a cold-blooded murderer who carefully planned the killing of co-workers at a Coast Guard station on Kodiak Island.
James Michael Wells, sentenced to four consecutive life sentences in 2014 for a double murder, always insisted he didn't do it.
Now an appeals court has found that his jury trial in 2014 was fundamentally flawed. A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says prosecutors overstepped boundaries time and again, including the use of an expert witness on workplace violence. The panel reversed the murder convictions and ordered a new trial with a different judge.
"The panel concluded that the Government's actions, unchecked by the district court at critical points, so tipped the scales of justice as to render the trial fundamentally unfair," the opinion filed Tuesday said.
The opinion quotes the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: "The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."
The U.S. attorney's office for Alaska is evaluating its options, including whether to ask for a fresh review by a bigger appeals court panel.
But if the case is sent back to U.S. District Court in Alaska, federal prosecutors "are committed to moving forward with a retrial of James Wells," said Chloe Martin, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Alaska.
[Previous coverage: Wells receives maximum sentence for double murder at Kodiak Coast Guard site]
Wells, now 66, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of murdering a federal employee, plus two federal weapons offenses after a 19-day federal trial.
At a Coast Guard communications station in 2012, as prosecutors outlined the case, a disgruntled Wells shot to death civilian employee Richard Belisle, 51, and Electronic Technician First Class James Hopkins, 41. The prosecution, led by then-U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler, portrayed him as a man jealous of Belisle, who was retired from a Coast Guard active-duty career, and feuding with Hopkins, their boss, when he enacted a scheme to slip into their work station early one morning and shoot them both. The three had specialized duties at an antenna maintenance facility they called the "rigger shop."
The prosecution said surveillance footage showed when Wells' co-workers got to the station. The footage, computer records and other evidence helped to establish that the killings happened between 7:10 a.m. and 7:14 a.m. April 12, 2012, during a 34-minute window in which Wells could not account for his time, the prosecution said.
Wells insisted they had the wrong guy.
"I am really happy that we did get the conviction reversed," said his defense lawyer from the trial, Rich Curtner. "This is the case of a man who always maintained his innocence."
The 73-page opinion was written by a federal judge from Louisiana, Donald Walter, who was temporarily assigned to the 9th Circuit through a program to expose trial judges to appeals. Two 9th Circuit judges, A. Wallace Tashima and Jacqueline Nguyen, also participated. Tashima disagreed with the decision to reassign the case to a different judge for a retrial, saying that was unnecessary.
Senior U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline presided over the 2014 trial.
The problems with the prosecution case were multifold, the panel found.
For starters, once the federal government decided not to seek the death penalty, prosecutors fought to remove a second public defender from the case. The magistrate judge who handled preliminary matters was within his rights to remove that lawyer, but prosecutors were wrong to try to stack the deck against a beleaguered public defender, the opinion said.
Ultimately, the second court-appointed lawyer, Peter Offenbecher, was allowed to stay on the case.
The district judge also made mistakes in allowing testimony by an expert in workplace violence, the opinion said. Wells called the testimony improper profiling intended to make him look guilty. Among other things, the witness, psychologist J. Reid Meloy, testified that these types of perpetrators tend to have "histories of chronic conflict with those in authority over the person in the workplace." They are narcissistic with a sense of entitlement, easily wounded and humiliated, a person who fantasizes "about solving problems through violence," the opinion said, paraphrasing Wells' description of the expert's testimony.
Belisle and Hopkins were well liked, but Wells was a challenging worker and difficult to control, other witnesses testified.
And prosecutors told jurors that the expert's testimony "about predatory violence 'fits Mr. Wells to a T.' "
The expert should never have been allowed to testify, the opinion said.
The appeals court panel also took issue with testimony about a 2003 incident in which Wells disobeyed an order to leave a fiberglass hut on Attu Island. Instead, he brought the hut back to Kodiak Island, maddening a supervisor who described him as conceited and resistant to change.
That incident happened long ago and had nothing to do with either victim, the opinion said. It didn't logically provide a motive for a double homicide, according to the ruling.
More recent examples of bad workplace behavior were relevant, however, the panel said.
Meanwhile, news of the appeals court decision Tuesday upset the widow of one of the victims.
Debbie Hopkins, who now lives in North Carolina near children and grandchildren, sat in on the first trial and said she would sit in on a second one.
"We are dang well going to make sure his butt don't get out," Hopkins said.
She said she had run-ins with Wells, who objected to her parking in a spot that he considered his own during her daily lunches with her husband at his work.
Wells is serving his time at a federal penitentiary in Florence, Colorado.
He is likely to stay locked up for now, said Curtner, his defense lawyer.
Prosecutors may seek to have the appeal reviewed by an 11-judge 9th Circuit panel. Those proceedings are rare. Of 810 petitions during a recent 12-month period seeking that type of extended review in the 9th Circuit, 19 were granted, according to appeals court spokesman David Madden.