OPINION: Questions about Loussac Library stabbing case should make legislators pause

Alaskans were stunned by the stabbing of Angela Harris on a Sunday afternoon at the Loussac Library in February 2022. Harris was at the self-check kiosk when 33-year-old Corey Ahkivgak stabbed her in the back and then fled. He was arrested the same day.

Harris, a mother of four children, a U.S. Coast Guard member with another civilian job she loved, is in a wheelchair. Life as she knew it is gone. Her future is uncertain.

A month before the stabbing, Ahkivgak had been charged with felony assaults for random, violent attacks on two women. That charging document listed 20 prior convictions — most of them involving violence towards persons or property.

The earlier assaults were dismissed by the court because Ahkivgak was found incompetent to stand trial and not likely to be restored to competency. He was released. News coverage said Ahkivgak had “slipped through the cracks of Alaska’s justice system just a month before (Harris) was stabbed.”

Then the criminal charges involving Harris were dismissed for the same reason. “But this time was different,” the news reported. At the hearing where the charges were dismissed, a state prosecutor announced she would be filing a civil petition to involuntarily commit Ahkivgak as long as he could be considered dangerous.

This raises a critical question that has never been answered: Why wasn’t a civil petition filed when the earlier assault charges were dismissed? There was substantial evidence then that Ahkivgak was dangerous. Alaska Statute (AS) 12.47.110(e) recognizes such danger and gives the state an advantage with a civil petition.

“A defendant charged with a felony and found to be incompetent to proceed … is rebuttably presumed to be mentally ill and to present a likelihood of serious harm to self or others.”


Under current statutes, Ahkivgak could have been civilly committed after the two earlier assaults were dismissed. Yet two bills have been proposed — House Bill (HB) 80 and Senate Bill (SB) 53 — to prevent what happened to Harris from happening again. But it shouldn’t have happened when it did.

I asked one of the proposed legislation’s sponsors, Rep. Andy Josephson, about this. While we sometimes disagree on specific solutions, Rep. Josephson tries to fix our failing mental health system. He replied that the current statutes do not “specifically direct prosecutors to move towards civil commitment,” and “upon information, they are not trained or specifically instructed to do so.”

The second quote is noteworthy. It suggests Rep. Josephson has information that prosecutors have not been trained or specifically instructed by the Department of Law (DOL) on civil commitments of incompetent criminal defendants who remain dangerous.

But the response to a lack of specific instruction and training is to provide those. Not to pass legislation that removes any discretion and replaces it with unnecessary, overreaching, costly, mandates.

SB 53 requires a state attorney petition to civilly commit a defendant found incompetent in any felony crime against the person. Petitions lead to psychiatric evaluations involving hospital stays, litigation, more hospitalization, more litigation, ad nauseam. The resources expended can be significant. SB 53 would mandate this process when an 18-year-old, later found to be incompetent for trial, injured a 15-year-old who ended up needing one doctor’s stitch. (AS 11.41.220) Does a first-time case like that always warrant such resource allocation and possible lifelong repercussions for the 18-year-old?

HB 80′s mandate is even broader. It adds as crimes triggering a petition criminally negligent burning, misdemeanor neglect of an animal, and misdemeanor possession or transfer of brass knuckles and certain knives. Should a first-time commission of any of those automatically require resource-taxing commitment proceedings if the person is not competent to stand trial with consequences that can be more detrimental to the offender’s future than a misdemeanor conviction and jail time?

The fiscal notes attached to these legislative mandates should give pause. The mandates will also exacerbate the attorney staffing problems of the state’s Department of Law and the Public Defender Agency (which represents respondents in civil commitment proceedings), and the staffing shortages at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) — which have all been reported in the news.

As is often the case with legislation, HB 80 and SB 53 have add-ons, some of which have elicited opposition from the Disability Law Center of Alaska as being unconstitutional. So, anticipate costly litigation there.

There isn’t enough capacity now for civilly committed incompetent defendants. A single 10-bed unit at API serves the entire state. It is already overtaxed with monthslong waits. There are plans to add 10 beds. That may reduce the current wait list time, but it won’t meet the mandates in HB 80 and SB 53.

More than 30 years ago, I handled a case as a state prosecutor with a violent defendant found incompetent to stand trial. Trial was delayed and his competency was restored. Had it not been, he would not have been released without myself or a civil state’s attorney petitioning to civilly commit him until he no longer presented a danger. No statute mandated that. We understood our jobs required it.

Overreaching, costly, and possibly unconstitutional legislative mandates are not needed. Answers to why Ahkivgak wasn’t civilly committed under existing statutes after his two earlier assaults were dismissed are. Did an overworked attorney miss filing a petition? Did an undertrained attorney make a poor judgment not to file a petition? Are there Department of Law policies that instruct attorneys on this process? The answers determine the solution. This isn’t about blame or retribution. It’s about the most effective way to prevent what happened to Harris from happening again.

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.

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Valerie Van Brocklin

Val Van Brocklin was a state and federal prosecutor in Alaska. She now trains and writes nationally on criminal justice and law enforcement topics. She lives in Anchorage.