Judge postpones decision on Erick Almandinger's sentencing
Ten months after his conviction for murder, Erick Almandinger was back in court to be sentenced for his role in David Grunwald’s death. However, the judge delayed a decision until next month, meaning David's parents, Ben and Edie Grunwald, will have to wait to give the court their victim impact statements.
“We're a little frustrated after today. We were expecting a little more to happen,” Edie said.
Almandinger, now 19, is one of four people charged in the 16-year-old Palmer boy’s beating and killing.
David went missing the night of Nov. 13, 2016. His body was later found in the woods off mile 7 of Knik River Road.
A jury convicted Almandinger of first-degree murder in May 2018. A separate jury convicted another one of the accused, Dominic Johnson, of the same charges in December 2018. Remaining suspects Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfro are currently awaiting trial.
Last week, Johnson’s attorney told Judge Gregory Heath that his client was going to have psychological testing done before being sentenced.
The judge then decided to extend the proceeding to give Almandinger's defense attorney, Jon Iannaccone, time to decide if he wanted to have individual psychological testing done on Almandinger. Judge Heath said Iannaccone filed an opposition motion that said there were reasons why no individualized clinical psychological testing is necessary.
"Mr. Almandinger does not suffer from mental illness and, two, the problems and accuracy with some of the risk assessments that are done,” the judge read.
Judge Heath said he and state prosecutors had concerns about the lack of testing. Thus far, he's only received letters from family members and a pre-sentence report.
“At this point, the court is not convinced this is enough of an individualized assessment to determine and impose a fair sentence,” Judge Heath said. “I have to do careful scrutiny to individual deterrents and rehabilitation when I’m sentencing a 16-year-old on a first-degree murder charge.”
Heath gave the defense three weeks to decide how to proceed.
The Graham Decision
A recent ruling in the court of appeals will decide what victim impact statements Judge Heath will receive.
Stacey Graham was originally sentenced to 32 years in prison on a second-degree murder conviction for the deaths of Jordyn Durr and Brooke McPheters. He drove drunk in 2013 and hit and killed the girls while they were school shopping.
Graham appealed his sentence, which he called “excessive.”
Last month, the court decided that Judge Kevin Saxby made procedural errors in Graham's sentencing hearing, which included emotional videos, music and testimony from Anchorage Police Department officers.
According to the court of appeals, Graham was subject to a sentence of between 13 and 20 years on each count, to be served consecutively. That made his sentencing range between 26 and 40 years. Judge Saxby sentenced Graham to serve 32 years.
“That decision requires a sentencing judge to structure a sentencing procedure to minimize the improper emotional pressures on his or her decision-making,” Judge Heath explained to the court Wednesday.
He said that includes limiting the number of people who can testify and the exhibits provided to the court. At a previous hearing, the state agreed not to show a video or slideshow at the proceeding. Prosecutors also agreed Ben and Edie Grunwald, as well as David's girlfriend Victoria, could give victim impact statements at the hearing.
“In this case, the court has received a large amount of letters from the community,” Heath said.
He said the defense filed a motion to have some of the letters removed. The state argues the letters show community condemnation.
Judge Heath said he wanted the state to address how the Graham decision should impact the letters and what it means for the witnesses. He asked state prosecutors to present their case in three weeks, at the same time they meet to discuss the psychological testing.
“We weren’t going to put people from the community on the stand,” said Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak.
He questioned whether the Graham decision applied to exhibits given to the judge, but that were not presented during the hearing.
“I don’t think their complaint was about things that were written,” Kalytiak said.
Kalytiak suggested the court attorney analyze the opinion to determine if it applied to letters written by community members that are submitted to judges. Almandinger's attorney Iannaccone asked that none of the community letters be considered.
Edie Grunwald said she felt like the discussion diminished the victims’ rights.
“I just think it’s ridiculous that they’re trying to keep out anything that might be emotional, because we’ve lost our son. He’s gone. What’s part of reality is the emotions of the situation,” she said Wednesday.
Adolescent Brain Development
Iannaccone’s witness for the sentencing hearing was Dr. Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychologist who specializes in adolescent brain development. Dr. Steinberg called in from his home in Philadelphia.
He explained his area of expertise is a general overview of brain development for adolescents and how they act in “emotionally charged” situations.
“In hot situations, adolescents tend to be more short-sighted, they tend to have difficulty thinking through the consequences of their behaviors,” Dr. Steinberg said. “They tend to be easily affected by the presence of peers.”
Dr. Steinberg said he reviewed the transcript of Almandinger’s interview with Alaska State Troopers as well as 400 pages of grand jury testimony, but he did not do an individual assessment of Almandinger, nor was he qualified to do so.
“Can you and I agree that there’s no study that has concluded that 16-year-olds don’t know killing someone is wrong,” Kalytiak asked.
“I would say a 16-year-old of normal intelligence knows killing someone is wrong,” Dr. Steinberg responded.
Aggravators & Mitigators
The state argued in favor of two aggravators to several of Almandinger’s charges. One is that the crime committed was among the most serious of that kind of offense; the second is deliberate cruelty.
“It got to the point it was for the thrill of it,” Assistant District Attorney Melissa Wininger-Howard told the judge.
An aggravator gives the judge the ability to give a person a sentence that exceeds the presumptive range.
State prosecutors are asking for a 209-year sentence; Almandinger’s defense attorney is asking for 35 years.
Howard said the “deliberate cruelty” aggravator should be added to the kidnapping charge. State prosecutors say the group pistol-whipped David, loaded him into his own Bronco and then drove for more than 20 minutes out to Knik River Road before executing him.
“To put someone through that, there would be no other reason other than for the gratification of that. There’s no other reason to toy with someone like that,” Howard said.
Iannaccone argued the kidnapping was cruel, but not in the legal definition. He said Almandinger didn’t plan to be a part of the attack.
“Should Erick have stopped it? Should Erick have texted somebody? Should Erick have not given the gun? Yes to every single one of those things. And Erick pays a heavy price for all of those inactions. He’s going to be sentenced for a minimum of 35 years by [Judge Heath] which is most of the rest of his life,” Iannaccone said.
Countering the state’s aggravators, Iannaconne is pushing for several mitigators, arguing the crimes were not the most serious of their kind. Iannaccone said Almandinger’s role was minor and evidence shows “the others pinned it on Erick because he was the weakest in the group.” He pointed to suspect Austin Barrett as the one who pulled the trigger and killed David.
However, Kalytiak said suspects Austin Barrett and Bradley Renfro both accused Almandinger of pulling the trigger.
Judge Heath set a brief status hearing for Almandinger on April 18, giving the state and defense another chance to discuss psychological testing and victim impact letters.
Dominic Johnson will have a status hearing June 20 when the judge will likely set a date for sentencing.
Renfro and Barrett are still expected to go to trial together in August. The judge has already moved their trial to Fairbanks, citing excessive pretrial publicity.
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