When a person has been charged with a crime, he is considered innocent until proven guilty by trial in a court of law. One would suppose that all exculpatory evidence, that evidence which points towards a defendant’s innocence, would be disclosed during the defendant’s trial. In the state of Alaska, this is not always the case.
Recent revelations have shown that in Alaska state prosecutors have not always turned over exculpatory evidence. The Alaska Supreme Court is now considering a change in rules that would require all lawyers involved in a criminal case in the state to disclose any evidence that indicates a person has been wrongfully accused or convicted of a crime.
Steve Van Goor, counsel for the Alaska Bar Association, said,”This (proposed rule change) is designed to encourage lawyers to think about the consequences of not doing anything. When you’re in a position to report evidence and don’t, an innocent person sits in prison.”
Van Goor stated the main impetus behind the proposed rule change is the prevalence of cases in this country in which people have been exonerated by new evidence.
An example of a wrongful conviction occurred in 1994 in Petersburg, Alaska. Police found a woman wandering around a city park, drunk and in a disheveled state. She claimed a man raped her in the park. The man was tried, convicted and sentenced to a five-year sentence. However, in this trial, the jury did not receive key evidence that contradicted the accuser’s story, even though the prosecution knew it existed.
The Superior Court overturned the conviction and dismissed all charges once it learned of the withheld evidence.
Another example of exculpatory evidence being withheld was when Jimmy Eacker was accused and convicted of first degree murder for the brutal killing of a woman. New evidence was presented in court that showed the DNA of another man as well as Eaker’s in the victim’s body. Eacker then pled guilty to manslaughter instead of first degree murder and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. Former prosecutor Patrick Gullufsen knew the DNA results, but failed to disclose that knowledge at Eaker’s trial and was suspended in July for withholding evidence.
Bill Oberly, director of the Alaska Innocence Project, said that “mishandled justice, combined with a perceived lack of incentive or risk of consequence for the state to disclose exculpatory evidence in every case” is why he supports the proposed new rule. “I don’t think anyone in Alaska, or the United States, can deny that wrongful convictions happen…these need to be corrected, or our justice system is a sham.”
John Skidmore, director of the Alaska Department of Law, whose duties include overseeing all of the state’s prosecutors, said that even if the workload of the prosecutors increases, the proposed rule change is good for everyone as “it’s another safeguard to make sure innocent people aren’t convicted, and when they are, that it’s corrected.”