'It’s not OK:' DV homicides among new Anchorage DA's top priorities
Anchorage's new district attorney is no stranger to the office, or to Alaska's largest city. John Novak believes there is a lot of good in this community — but as a career prosecutor, he's seen the worst it has to offer.
"I am tired of hearing Alaska is No. 1 in the nation in domestic-violence homicide. That’s been our dishonor for years and years and years now, and it’s not OK," Novak, the deputy DA who recently succeeded predecessor Rick Allen, said in an interview Monday.
He acknowledges he has "no illusions" of solving the problem overnight, but says domestic-violence homicides, sexual assaults, and cases of child abuse and neglect are top priority.
When asked what criminal elements can be handled differently in prosecuting those cases, Novak said one of his biggest concerns is strangulation.
"I feel very strongly about that," he said. "If you’re willing to put pressure and strangle somebody, the studies show that that is a high indicator of somebody – if you’re willing to do that, you’re willing to kill them."
Strangulation has recently received increased public awareness following the highly publicized no-jail time plea deal for Justin Schneider, a man accused, in part, of strangling a woman unconscious.
Novak says he leads regular community trainings to educate people about strangulation.
The goal is putting perpetrators away before a case becomes fatal, but Novak says proving a strangulation case is a challenge.
"It is common, in [fatal cases], not to leave any external marks," he explained, "The only physical marks is at autopsy and they look at the brain after they remove the top of the skull, they’ll see some physical signs on the brain and so it is a crime that’s difficult to prosecute. It’s difficult to investigate."
Even so, he vows his office will try.
"If we try some of these cases and the jury doesn’t convict, we’re not gonna stop. We’re gonna re-tool, we’re gonna put on some more training and we’re gonna keep trying, 'cause it’s a big deal," he said.
Novak says he understands that the community is also frustrated with nonviolent crime, since he has friends who have fallen victim to property crime and car theft. Even they, he believes, would agree the crimes he wants to focus on are more serious.
"Our rates of violent crime have been among the top of the nation for years and years and years, and I find that totally unacceptable," he said.
When asked how he thinks the public's perception of crime in Anchorage lines up with reality, Novak answered, "I want people in Anchorage and greater Alaska to feel safe, and if they don’t feel safe, we’re not doing our job."
Novak is now leading the largest district attorney's office in Alaska, as public safety is likely to be a key issue during the legislative session. He says he was not hired to concern himself with policy battles in Juneau, but rather to improve the performance of his office and mentor young prosecutors.
As Novak took on weekend shifts during the holidays, he said he saw courtroom bail decisions that he found concerning.
"Concerned, I think would be the right word, on some of the cases where people were being released and the bail amounts and things like that, so that’s a concern of mine," he said. "I don’t pretend to know all the answers."
Novak spent time Monday working on a task that has been top of mind since he moved into his new role two weeks ago.
"We're hiring!" he said.
Prosecutors have worked 12-hour shifts in court on what should be their days off, while Novak says his legal assistant worked 17 days straight during the holidays due to vacant positions he is working to fill.
He called the recent accomplishments of the understaffed office "herculean."
"This isn't about me," he said. "I represent the people."
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