Witnesses begin taking the stand in Yakutat homicide case

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Robert Kowalski prepares to leave the courtroom during a break in the trial on Thursday. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Superior Court Judge Louis Menendez holds up a copy of prospective jury instructions in view of attorneys in the Robert Kowalski trial. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Prosecutor James Fayette addresses the jury during opening statements on Thursday, March 20, 2014. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

An aerial view of the Glacier Bear Lodge in Yakutat. The room that Robert Kowalski and Sandra Perry resided is located in the upper left end of the L-shaped structure. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Public defender Eric Hedland addresses the jury as Superior Court Judge Louis Menendez listens during opening statements on Thursday, March 20, 2014. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Jeremy Padgett, son of Sandra Perry, tries to recall his reaction upon hearing the news that his mother died in Alaska. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Martha Swank née Howell, former waitress at the Glacier Bear Lodge in July 1996, describes her job in the lodge restaurant. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Gregory Swank, former dinner and night cook at the Glacier Bear Lodge in July 1996, describes the arrangement of the kitchen and restaurant at the lodge. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Robert Droddy was a resident of an adjacent room at Glacier Bear Lodge in July 1996 when his roommate allegedly heard the gunshot that resulted in the death of Sandra Perry. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Alberto Carranza III looks to his former friend, Robert Kowalski, in court on Thursday. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Opening statements were held Thursday and the first witnesses took the stand in the case of a man accused of killing his girlfriend at a Yakutat lodge 17 1/2 years ago.

Robert Kowalski, 52, is charged with first and second degree murder for the death of Sandra Perry. The 39-year old woman was shot and killed at the Glacier Bear Lodge in July 1996.

Prosecutor James Fayette jolted the jury and spectators with his opening statements that included a vivid description of the fatal injuries sustained by Perry after a shotgun was fired at her head at close range.

“Blew her head off, clean off,” Fayette said.

That Kowalski was handling the shotgun when Perry was killed is not in dispute. But the question is whether he intentionally killed her or he knew his conduct could lead to her death, or whether it was an accident – as Kowalski claimed — that stemmed from tripping or a reaction after being startled by Perry.

Public defender Eric Hedland said the investigation by local police and state troopers was immediate and thorough.

“I think I will be able to establish that with any witness that is asked to give a rendition of an event, over time, there will be discrepancies,” Hedland said. “That’s true if you’re taking about an alleged victim, a dispassionate eyewitness, or the possible suspect. But the core facts that Mr. Kowalski described did not change.”

After opening statements, some of those who testified included Perry’s oldest son, a waitress and dinner cook at the lodge, and a lodge resident who was asleep in an adjacent room when Perry died.

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