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Crime & Courts

Alaska psychiatrist charged with punching man in Juneau grocery store acquitted on basis of self-defense

An Alaska psychiatrist criminally charged for punching a man in a grocery store in June was acquitted after a two-day trial in Juneau last month.

The misdemeanor assault charge against Joshua Sonkiss, 50, made headlines during the tense pandemic summer in part because police said the psychiatrist punched a man in the face because he wasn’t wearing a mask.

That’s not what happened, Sonkiss says.

In an interview last week, Sonkiss said he went to a Juneau Fred Meyer to pick up groceries and cleaning supplies. He was standing at the checkout register when a man and his young son stepped close to him. Sonkiss says he asked the two to step back. They were not wearing masks, but many people weren’t at grocery stores in Juneau around that time, according to Sonkiss.

Sonkiss says the man then said he’d “beat his ass” and “came at him.” No one disputes that Sonkiss threw a single punch, which broke the man’s jaw.

The injured man, Bowen Dallmann, 54, could not be reached for this story.

Afterward, Sonkiss paid for his groceries and waited in the parking lot. He said he believed it would be clear that he had been defending himself from an imminent attack, something allowed under Alaska self-defense law.

After he was charged with a single misdemeanor count of assault, he lost his job at Juneau’s Bartlett Hospital and resigned from leadership positions at state and national medical societies.

Dr. Joshua Sonkiss outside Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage on Friday, April 30, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Sonkiss knew the criminal justice system well, but not as a defendant.

As one of only a few forensic psychiatrists working in Alaska — he thinks he may be the only one in the state currently — he evaluates the psychological state of people who are seriously mentally ill and have been charged with crimes. He’s testified in more than 200 court hearings.

Sonkiss is also the former president of the Alaska Psychiatric Association and has worked as an addiction specialist, another psychiatric specialty in short supply in Alaska.

His professional stature as a leader in his field made his criminal charge news, and the story was quickly picked up by media outlets. It also gained traction on social media, where it was held up as a tale highlighting the fraught encounters people were having in public places like grocery stores during the pandemic.

Sonkiss said he was out of work for months and sold his home to help pay for his defense. At the trial in April, a witness testified that the man had been moving forward when Sonkiss hit him. Police had originally reported the witness as saying the opposite.

“It was a critical detail,” Sonkiss said.

Today, Sonkiss says he feels lucky to have been hired for a job with the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Though he’s been acquitted, he’s dealing with a Google problem — searching his name now brings up the Juneau grocery store incident. He thinks that will linger.

“I’ll be retelling this story for years,” he said.