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Crime & Courts

Lack of psychiatric evaluation delays sentencing for first teen convicted in Grunwald murder

Erick Almandinger, who was convicted in the 2016 murder of 16-year-old David Grunwald, appeared in Palmer Superior Court for a sentencing hearing Wednesday. (Bill Roth / ADN)

PALMER — The long-awaited sentencing for the first teenager convicted of murdering 16-year-old David Grunwald in November 2016 was delayed yet again, this time over concerns he never got a psychiatric evaluation.

Erick Almandinger, along with three others charged with the murder, was accused of beating Grunwald with a .40-caliber Ruger — Almandinger’s gun — in a camper behind Almandinger’s Palmer home and then driving him, bloodied and half-conscious, to a remote spot near the Knik River in his own 1995 Ford Bronco before shooting him once in the head and then torching the Bronco across the Valley.

A Palmer jury last May found Almandinger guilty on all counts against him, including first-degree murder. Another teen, Dominic Johnson, was convicted in December. Two others, Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfro, are scheduled to face trial together in Fairbanks after their request for a change of venue was approved.

Almandinger, 19, was originally scheduled for a sentencing hearing last fall but it was rescheduled for this week as Johnson’s trial proceeded.

Prosecutors are suggesting a 99-year sentence for the murder charge plus additional time for several others. Almandinger’s attorney is asking for 35 years in prison.

As Wednesday’s hearing got underway before a courtroom crowded with supporters of Grunwald’s parents, Palmer Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath announced things wouldn’t be going as planned. Almandinger’s mother was also present.

Superior Court Judge Gregory Heath listens to attorneys on Wednesday during a sentencing hearing for Erick Almandinger, who was convicted in the 2016 murder of 16-year-old David Grunwald. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Heath, citing several concerns including the fact that Almandinger never received a psychiatric evaluation, said he was delaying the sentencing until Almandinger’s defense attorney could respond in three weeks.

He said he agreed with the prosecution’s concern about the lack of an individualized clinical psychiatric evaluation, given testimony later Wednesday from a national expert in adolescent brain development.

Almandinger’s attorney, Jon Iannaccone, had responded Monday that none was necessary because his client isn’t mentally ill and there are issues with the accuracy of some risk assessments, Heath said.

But the judge said he disagreed, citing Alaska case law showing that judges sentencing juveniles on first-degree murder charges must give “careful scrutiny” to prospects for deterrence and rehabilitation. Those cases indicate the importance of a psychiatric assessment, he said.

Heath said the only information he has on which to weigh Almandinger’s prospects are a pre-sentencing report with one paragraph of description under rehabilitative criteria and letters from family members.

“At this time, the court is not convinced this is enough of an individualized assessment to determine and impose a fair sentence,” he said.

Heath also referenced a recent state appeals court decision that threw out the unprecedented 32-year prison sentence for DUI driver Stacey Graham, whose vehicle killed two teenage girls walking on a South Anchorage bike path in 2013. The appeals court faulted the judge presiding over the sentencing on, among other things, relying too much on emotional testimony and sentencing factors of crime deterrence and community condemnation.

Heath told the court he has received 60 letters in support of the prosecution’s sentencing recommendations that he’ll now have to analyze in light of the Supreme Court decision, which requires a judge to “minimize improper emotional pressures on decision making.”

He asked prosecutors to submit additional information in light of the Supreme Court decision.

Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak, one of two prosecutors handling the case, said in court Wednesday that community condemnation against Almandinger is fairly obvious and that the sentencing hearing in the Graham case — which included a slideshow with music — was “pretty elaborate” and didn’t necessarily involve written materials.

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