The Alaska Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for a Tuluksak man because the trial judge did not wait for a winter storm to pass through the area, allowing more rural residents to sit as jurors.
Harry Napoka was arrested by a village police officer in August 2010 for assault, resisting arrest, and driving under the influence.
Bethel normally serves as the presumptive trial site for more than fifty villages in the Kuskokwim River area. Juries are usually composed of half Bethel residents and half villagers flown into town.
The December 2010 storm during Napoka’s trial prevented most of the prospective jurors from nearby villages from arriving. It also kept many of the prosecution’s witnesses grounded in Tuluksak.
Napoka’s attorney objected to picking a jury without a fair representation of villagers to be questioned during the jury selection process. Trial Judge Natalie Finn thought the jury represented a fair cross-section of the community. She was apparently satisfied that many of the Bethel jurors had previously spent time in a village, and she recessed proceedings until the next day when the prosecution’s witnesses could arrive from Tuluksak.
Napoka was acquitted of DUI and assault, but convicted of resisting arrest and another charge of assault.
The three-judge appeals court agreed with Napoka’s defense attorney and determined that Judge Finn made a mistake by prematurely seating a jury of Bethel residents. In an opinion issued Friday, the Court of Appeals ruled that Judge Finn should’ve delayed jury selection. There would’ve been no harm in waiting for the weather to clear since trial could not continue, anyway, until the Tuluksak witnesses could arrive.