Crime & Courts

Federal prosecutors no longer seek death penalty for Palmer man awaiting trial in 2016 killings

Federal prosecutors are no longer seeking the death penalty for a man accused of fatally shooting two people at a Meadow Lakes residence before setting fire to the building in 2016.

John Pearl Smith II, 35, is still scheduled to go to trial in October on 17 federal charges in the case.

Smith was indicted by an Anchorage grand jury in 2017 on charges that included using a firearm during a crime of violence resulting in murder, robbery and being a felon in possession of a firearm, which was related to a series of armed robberies between September 2015 and June 2016. The robberies targeted people Smith believed “were involved in trafficking drugs,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said at the time.

Smith shot 30-year-old Crystal S. Denardi of Wasilla and 43-year-old Ben G. Gross in June 2016 in a shop and detached garage at the Meadow Lakes home Gross owned, troopers said at the time. A third person who called 911 was also wounded by gunfire. When emergency responders arrived at the home, the shop was on fire, authorities said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska announced in 2018 that they intended to seek the death penalty for Smith following a directive from then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Alaska does not have capital punishment at the state level, but federal prisoners are eligible for the death penalty.

Since 1927, 50 federal executions have been carried out, 13 of which took place within the last year under the Trump administration.

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced last week that federal executions would halt pending a review of the Justice Department’s policies and procedures. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska withdrew the intent to seek the death penalty for Smith under the attorney general’s direction, spokeswoman Lisa Houghton said in an email.

“This decision does not change our intent to pursue justice for the victims and their family members,” she said. “Trial is scheduled to begin October 18, 2021. If convicted, Smith faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.”

Prosecutors initially filed a motion to seek a death sentence in 2018 but filed a motion to withdraw it on June 17. The motion was removed on June 22, according to court records.

Smith is the only person in Alaska for whom federal prosecutors were seeking the death penalty, said Jamie McGrady, a federal public defender for the state.

Executions were carried out in territorial Alaska until the Territorial Legislature abolished capital punishment in 1957. Alaska became a state two years later and has never had a statewide death penalty.

There are no Alaskans currently on federal death row and no one from the state has been sentenced to death in federal court since statehood, according to data from the Bureau of Prisons.

“Historically, there are very few cases in Alaska that meet the requirements for seeking the federal death penalty,” Houghton said.

Smith’s case includes aggravating factors that qualified it for the death penalty, including prior violent felony convictions involving firearms; “substantial planning and premeditation” involved in the killings; and his plan to kill a witness to the crimes, prosecutors wrote in the notice filed in 2018 to seek the death penalty.

In 2009, federal prosecutors in Alaska sought the death penalty for Joshua Wade, but a later plea deal meant that he wouldn’t face conviction by a federal jury and would be spared the death penalty. Wade was sentenced to life in prison after confessing to murdering two women in random acts of violence.

Public support for the death penalty has decreased in recent years, McGrady said, and several states have recently abolished capital punishment. The Biden administration hasn’t yet said that it plans to end the use of capital punishment entirely, according to McGrady, and the pause doesn’t stop federal prosecutors from seeking the death penalty.

“Statistically, the majority of Americans don’t really support the death penalty anymore, so I think this trend is gaining momentum,” she said.