Ketchikan murder conviction overturned over trial prosecutor’s statements
A state appeals court has vacated a man’s murder conviction in a Ketchikan stabbing six years ago, saying the prosecutor improperly told the jury that it could only acquit the defendant by finding that the victim “deserved what he got.”
The Alaska Court of Appeals’ decision on Devin Rossiter’s appeal was released Friday. Rossiter had been 18 when he fatally stabbed Nick Stachelrodt with a push knife on March 12, 2011, after Stachelrodt caught Rossiter rifling through a car and dragged him out of the vehicle. Rossiter had said he “flipped out,” stabbing Stachelrodt in the neck and chest because he feared Stachelrodt would harm him.
The Ketchikan Daily News reported that prosecutor James Scott thanked the jury for its service in January 2012, after it convicted Rossiter of second-degree murder and evidence tampering. Rossiter was subsequently sentenced to 36 years in prison on those charges.
In its decision Friday, the three-judge appellate court cited a PowerPoint presentation Scott showed to the jury, in which a slide said that “the only way you can find the defendant not guilty of murder in the second degree is: you disagree [with the preceding slide, and] Nick Stachelrodt deserved what he got.”
Rossiter’s attorney objected to the slide at trial, but Superior Court Judge Trevor Stephens told him to object again if Scott again made that statement in closing arguments.
According to the decision, during those arguments in the Rossiter trial, Scott told jurors that “the only way you can find him not guilty of murder in the second degree is if you [conclude that] Nick Stachelrodt deserved what he got – or you misunderstand the law.”
The appeals court found that Scott’s presentation and summation distorted state law regarding self-defense in murder cases, which doesn’t require such findings and can include cases where “the defendant made a reasonable mistake regarding the need to use deadly force,” even if the victim never assaulted the defendant.
“But in the prosecutor’s summation to the jury, he repeatedly told the jurors that Rossiter’s claim of self-defense would be valid in only one circumstance: only if Nick Stachelrodt deserved to die,” the decision read. “This error was so obvious, and so egregious, that the trial judge was required to intervene — even if Rossiter’s attorney had never objected.”
One of the appellate judges, Marjorie Allard, wrote a brief concurring opinion mentioning that “Rossiter’s conviction for second-degree murder was not a foregone conclusion and that manslaughter was a plausible verdict in this case.”
State officials say they do not intend to petition the Alaska Supreme Court but are evaluating their ability to retry the case based on availability of witnesses and other factors.