Over sobs of relief from the parents of Norman "George" Dennis, an Anchorage Superior Court judge read off two guilty verdicts for second-degree murder for 37-year-old Joshua Wagner, who had argued during his trial he stabbed Dennis in self-defense. The jury's decision comes more than two years after the slaying. Dennis' family said they were happy with the verdict.
The jury found Wagner guilty of the two murder charges, as well as a single count of criminal mischief. But they decided the defendant was not guilty of murder in the first degree. The latter charge requires that a jury find a defendant intended to kill his or her victim, while the former requires a finding of actions of extreme recklessness. Ultimately, Wagner knew the bloody fight involving a knife would kill Dennis, his next-door neighbor, according to the jury.
Wagner's two guilty murder verdicts will be combined for sentencing -- he'll be punished once for the act of killing, said Deputy District Attorney Clint Campion. He faces a sentence of 10 to 99 years in jail for the murder convictions.
In October 2011, Wagner was living in a camper trailer in a driveway along Nugget Lane near DeArmoun Road and Lake Otis Parkway in South Anchorage. He became acquainted with his neighbors, including Dennis and Dennis' girlfriend, Annie Atkinson. In the months leading up to the stabbing, Wagner started storing belongings in Dennis' garage.
The parties disputed what prompted the deadly fight in that same garage, during which Dennis was stabbed a total of nine times. The prosecution said it doesn't know what happened; maybe it was the accumulation of stuff in Dennis' "man cave." The defense argued Dennis could have been jealous, as Wagner testified he'd been renting a room in Dennis' home from Atkinson while Dennis was away.
On the stand, Wagner testified he acted in self-defense. He said he twisted a knife away from Dennis, and while pinned in a corner he hugged the victim and stabbed, though he was unsure how many times. And his memory isn't that great, he said, because he was jostled. It was like being in a car crash, he said.
But the jury didn't buy Wagner's version of events. And as Wagner exited the courtroom, he passed by Brenda Dennis, the mother of the man everyone knew as George, and other family and friends without looking in their direction or saying a word.
State prosecutor Andrew Grannik embraced Brenda Dennis as the court hearing drew to a close. Outside the courtroom, she said the verdict was "closure for the whole family ... Now I can put my baby to rest."
Brenda would have preferred Wagner to have been found guilty of murder in the first degree, but "I'll take murder two," she said. She said she believes Wagner lied throughout the whole ordeal, from his initial interview with the Anchorage police to his trial testimony. "He's an evil person."
Annie Atkinson, Dennis' girlfriend and witness to the stabbing, said outside the courtroom the case had always been "black and white." When Superior Court Judge Jack Smith read the first count, first-degree murder, as not guilty, Atkinson said she got nervous, but the following verdicts calmed her and gave her a sense of resolution.
Campion said for each case in which a defendant claims self-defense, the burden falls on the state to disprove such claims. Grannik urged jurors during Wagner's trial to use their common sense and look beyond circumstantial evidence.
"There wasn't an eyewitness, and (the prosecution) had to rely on circumstantial evidence," Campion said. "That can pose challenges, but ultimately the jury decided Mr. Wagner did not act in self-defense."