Muni prosecutors mull taking on Anchorage felonies
Municipal prosecutors are considering whether to take on some of their state counterparts’ workload in Alaska’s largest city, pointing to brutal assaults which have gone uncharged as Mat-Su prosecutors handle an Anchorage homicide.
Anchorage Assembly members heard from local public-safety officials Wednesday, including municipal prosecutor Seneca Theno, on whether her office -- which has traditionally handled only misdemeanor offenses -- should now prosecute more serious felony crimes.
“We’ve also heard – and I don’t have this in writing, no one is going to say this to me directly – but we hear lots of things, that the district attorneys are instructed not to take cases unless they are slam dunks,” Theno said. “’Don’t take a case unless you know you can win it as a felony.’”
Theno, who has previously claimed that state criminal-justice reform measure Senate Bill 91 constituted a “huge hit” to the city’s budget, said Wednesday that state sentences obtained for crimes have also shortened.
“I think we’re more willing to go out on a limb than they are,” Theno said. “But what we also see are the sentences that are being imposed, whether on a felony or a misdemeanor at the state level, we’re seeing lesser sentences on those than what we’re obtaining at the municipal level here.”
Her statements followed comments last week from Anchorage District Attorney Rick Allen on Palmer prosecutors handling the Anchorage murder of Weston Gladney. Allen said that the case was being prosecuted there due to Gladney's body being found near Jim Creek in the Mat-Su, rather than in the heavily work-loaded Anchorage.
"It is true, however, that Anchorage has a record number of homicide cases this year so, we are grateful to the Palmer [District Attorney's Office] for keeping the case," Allen wrote in an email to KTVA.
Assistant Attorney General John Skidmore, chief of the state Department of Law’s Criminal Division, denied Theno’s "slam dunks" claim in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“The department has not given our prosecutors direction not file specific cases or types of cases,” Skidmore wrote. “We instruct our prosecutors to evaluate each case on a case-by-case basis to determine if there is admissible evidence to prove the elements of the crimes referred for prosecution. We also must evaluate the local public safety priorities of each community when determining how to use our limited prosecutorial resources.”
Theno also detailed a few examples of cases in which she said the state declined prosecution. In one case, a kidnapped woman had tried to walk away from her ex-boyfriend after an argument when he pulled her into a car and assaulted her. The woman only escaped to report the crime after he engaged the car doors’ child lock and she tried to climb out a window.
“He dragged her by her hair and throat back to the car, put her back in again, beat her up in the vehicle, told her he was going to kill her -- choked her repeatedly -- and we got that case as a misdemeanor,” Theno said. “We tried to send it to the state as a felony, and we were told those are hard to prosecute and that was the end of that.”
Another case Theno mentioned also involved an assault on a woman.
“We had another individual who suffered serious physical injury, was choked, punched in the head six times and kicked repeatedly until she fell off a bus,” Theno said. “She had a concussion at the time and suffered from long-term debilitating circumstances: dizziness, fatigue, inability to sleep, inability to see. It met the definition of serious physical injury – we asked the state to take it, they declined.”
West Anchorage Assembly member Eric Croft, an attorney, offered an assessment of Theno’s position at the meeting.
“Seneca’s walking a very fine line here, doing it beautifully, but the DAs are their partners as are the federal district attorneys and they do a lot of work together,” Croft said. “You don’t want to be overly critical, but if you’re noticing that things that used to be prosecuted aren’t anymore and things that they think should be aren’t, it’s what we’re trying – to raise the issue without losing the relationship.”
Forrest Dunbar, an Assembly member representing east Anchorage, suggested that Alaska budget concerns – one of the key drivers behind SB91’s focus on rehabilitating rather than incarcerating offenders – were also a factor in the state charging decisions.
“These are horrific cases that the state has turned down, but if you look at the cases the state’s actually been prosecuting they would blow your mind in how terrible they are,” Dunbar said. “They’re making unfortunate-but in their mind sometimes logical decisions, but until the Legislature decides to properly fund public safety in this state – here we are.”
Assemblymember Tim Steele asked Anchorage Police Department Chief Justin Doll, who told KTVA this week that “every single victim is important” in responding to this year’s crimes, whether he would like to see the municipality’s prosecutors become more involved in local crimes.
Although Doll emphasized that APD has a strong working relationship with Allen’s office, he said it would be “beneficial” to have more options in prosecuting local cases.
“What’s very disappointing to a police officer or a detective is to put a lot of effort into a case, and package it up and hand it off and have it thrown away,” Doll said. “So, if the city had some ability to prosecute some of these cases ourselves, I think from the police department’s perspective, that’s advantageous. And it also gives us maybe a little more control over our destiny, because now we can identify things that are a priority inside Anchorage and those can be sort of highlighted for prosecution.”
Daniella Rivera contributed information to this story.
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