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Crime & Courts

U.S. attorney seeks death penalty against Palmer man charged in double homicide

Federal prosecutors said Tuesday that they will seek the death penalty against a Palmer man accused in the 2016 shooting deaths of two people in a Meadow Lakes home.

John Pearl Smith II, 32, is facing federal charges in the deaths of  Crystal S. Denardi, 30, and Ben G. Gross, 43, both of Wasilla.

Tuesday's filing of notice of intent to seek the death penalty "follows the decision and directive by Attorney General Jeff Sessions," the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Alaska said in the statement.

In the filing, a June 13 letter from Sessions addressed to Alaska U.S. Attorney Bryan Schroder said "you are authorized and directed to seek the death penalty against John Pearl Smith II."

In 2017, Smith was indicted on 17 charges, including using a firearm during a crime of violence resulting in murder, robbery and being a felon in possession of a firearm. In a series of armed robberies between September 2015 and June 5, 2016, Smith targeted people who he believed were involved in drug trafficking, prosecutors say.

A driveway leading to a Meadow Lakes property where Alaska State Troopers found a fire burning and two bodies inside a building was marked with police tape on June 6, 2016. (Zaz Hollander / ADN)

Federal prosecutors say that if Smith is convicted, his use of a firearm "in furtherance of a crime of violence resulting in murder, and the use of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime resulting in murder," justifies a death sentence, along with aggravating factors.

Prosecutors said in Tuesday's filing that Smith's aggravating factors include prior violent felony convictions involving a firearm, and that he undertook "substantial planning and premeditation" before allegedly killing two people, and that he planned to murder at least one witness to the crime.

Alaska law does not allow for the death penalty in state cases. The federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988.

The last time federal prosecutors filed a notice of intent to seek the death penalty was in 2009 against Joshua Allen Wade, but it was later withdrawn, said Chloe Martin, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Alaska. Wade murdered two women in random acts of violence.

Before that, the last time prosecutors sought the death penalty in an Alaska case was in 1997, in a case against Abram Walter, who was accused of slaying a Ruby postmaster.

Neither Wade nor Walter were sentenced to death.

It is "very rare" for federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty, said Rich Curtner, the federal public defender for Alaska.

"I have handled every potential death penalty case since statehood," said Curtner. "There has only been a handful."

Nobody has been sentenced to death in an Alaska federal case since statehood, Martin said.

ADN reporter Michelle Theriault Boots contributed to this report.

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