Murder convictions overturned in 2006 homicide case
An Anchorage man has been given another opportunity to go before a jury and defend his actions that led to the death of two people on New Year’s Eve in 2006.
Ryan Sanders, now 31, applied for a hearing to include a key piece of evidence excluded in his original trial, which resulted in a conviction in the shooting deaths of 17-year-old Ashlee Richards and 23-year-old Travis Moore. Sanders’ defense argued a recording of a phone conversation between Det. Mark Huelskoetter and an acquaintance of Sanders that was not permitted in the original trial was critical in supporting Sanders’ self-defense claims.
The Alaska Supreme Court agreed, overturned the murder convictions and ordered a new trial.
New Year’s Eve 2006
On the night of the shooting, Moore and Richards, along with Raven Ketzler and his girlfriend Sherrell Porterfield, visited Sanders at his residence, court records show. Sanders invited Moore over after Moore reportedly called him several times that evening.
At some point, Moore, Sanders and Sanders’ brother, Joseph, went into Sanders’ bedroom to talk. During their conversation, Moore pulled out an unloaded 9mm Beretta pistol and struck Sanders in the face, leaving a gash over his left eye. Sanders responded by grabbing a .38 caliber revolver and shooting at Moore “four or five times,” according to court documents.
Two of the shots struck Moore, who ran out of the apartment and died “outside the apartment alongside the walkway leading to the front door,” court records said. Everyone else in the apartment fled as well.
Sanders said he was unsure he had struck Moore and grabbed a .40 caliber Glock semi-automatic handgun. He began chasing and firing at someone — later revealed to be Richards — running away in a black coat, which Sanders said he believed was worn by Moore. Richards was struck by nine bullets and grazed in the head by a tenth bullet. She was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Sanders went back into the apartment, finally noticing Moore’s body. Once inside, he “put down the Glock and waited,” according to court records. He asked his girlfriend’s brother, Jeremy, who was also present during the shooting, to dispose of the revolver. Jeremy hid it under a car in the parking lot, where police later found it.
When police first arrived at the scene, the SUV Moore arrived in almost hit one of the officers’ cars as it tried to leave. Sanders was inside the vehicle, holding a bloody towel to his head, which he explained to police was because he had been hit in the head with a pistol. He also told them he shot two people and left his Glock inside on a table.
While being interviewed by police, Sanders initially claimed only his .40 caliber Glock, Moore’s Beretta and a disassembled rifle were in the apartment. After police found the revolver in the parking lot, he confessed to hiding it because it had been purchased “under questionable circumstances.”
He told police that he was not certain of Moore’s motives for attacking him, but that Moore and Sanders’ brother did not get along because of money that went missing while Joseph was at Moore’s home.
Ten days after the shooting, Sanders was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder and a single count of tampering with physical evidence.
During the trial in 2010, state prosecutors requested that certain pieces of evidence be withheld from evidence presented to the jury. The evidence included Richards’ knife and a machete left in Moore’s SUV, which prosecutors argued were not used in the interactions at the apartment and could not be proven to be known to Sanders at the time.
Also included in the prosecutors’ request was the recording of a phone conversation between Huelskoetter and 17-year-old Carmela Bacod. Bacod called authorities two days after the shooting and told Huelskoetter that Richards had revealed a plan to attack and rob Sanders the night of the shooting, because Moore believed Sanders had stolen money from Ketzler while at Moore’s home.
Bacod told Huelskoetter that “they wanted to go beat him up to get the money back,” and that “Ashlee [Richards] just told me that they wanted the money back, and then they were gonna jump ‘em for it.”
Sanders, who wasn’t informed of the recording until more than a year after his arrest, argued it was critical to his defense, “which centered on justified self-defense and heat of passion,” court records show.
The judge presiding over the case, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Spaan, determined the tape was inadmissible as evidence because it was considered hearsay. He argued that Bacod’s relationship with the victims and defendant were relatively unknown to the court, so it was unclear whether she would lie on behalf of the defendant. He also noted authorities had not and could not cross-examine her to verify her statements, as Bacod had died in a car crash before the trial began.
In opening and closing statements before the jury, state prosecutors argued Sanders’ self-defense and heat of passion claims didn’t add up in light of his “excessive” actions against both victims.
“The State painted Sanders as a liar who also had others lie for him, and it questioned whether Moore had actually been the first aggressor,” wrote the Supreme Court justices who granted Sanders a new trial. “The State contended that even if the heat of passion defense initially applied, Sanders had time to cool down while he grabbed the second gun and chased Moore out of the apartment.”
Prosecutors also pointed out that Sanders should have known the difference between Moore and Richards, as Richards was an overweight Caucasian female with shoulder-length hair and Moore was a “fit” black man with short cropped hair. James Fayette, who originally prosecuted the case, said Richards’ death was like an execution, that Sanders shot her as she lay on the ground outside.
Sanders’ defense countered the prosecution by pointing out that he took responsibility for both deaths and cooperated with police. While he may have tried to hide the .38 revolver, they said it was only because of the nature of the gun’s purchase, not its use in the shootings. The defense also noted Sanders’ confusion in mistaking Richards for Moore was due to the low lighting outside the apartment, the similar coats worn by the victims and the “fast-paced, frenetic situation.”
The jury convicted Sanders on two counts of murder and one count of tampering with physical evidence. Sanders appealed the conviction, which was upheld in 2013 by the Alaska Court of Appeals.
Overturning the conviction
In overturning the conviction, the Supreme Court considered how the recording would be admissible.
While hearsay as a general rule is not considered valid evidence in a trial, the justices noted exceptions to the rule were applicable in this case.
They first noted that Richards’ statements to Bacod were useful in determining Richards’ state of mind, namely that she, and the others, intended to go through with a crime against Sanders the night of the shooting. This also provided a better understanding of why Moore would strike Sanders without any other evidence of provocation, which supported Sanders’ self-defense claims.
When the court of appeals upheld Sanders’ conviction, they argued the recording was inadmissible because of Alaska’s confrontation clause, which protects defendants from being tried on the word of another person except when that individual’s testimony was “so trustworthy that adversarial testing would add little to its reliability.” The Supreme Court argued that the confrontation clause does not apply when it is the defendant who submits such evidence for their defense, which Sanders did.
Finally, the judges argued that five factors contributed to the trustworthiness of Bacod’s statements: “Bacod’s motivation to speak truthfully, the spontaneity of her statement, the professional relationship between her and Detective Huelskoetter, the fact that her statement was recorded, and the clear demonstration of her firsthand knowledge of Richards’s plan.”
What happens next?
Fayette said the District Attorney’s office is still “reviewing this and digesting the opinion” issued Friday. He says if the order stands, Sanders will be retried under the original five charges.
District Attorney Clint Campion said the Anchorage Police Department had been contacted about a potential future trial, as had the families of the victims. He said Sanders will likely go before a judge “in the next few weeks” to determine a bail amount, if the judge considers that appropriate.
Campion said it could be months before a new trial begins while prosecutors and Sanders’ defense team prepare their arguments.
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