Attorneys’ errors pile up in Yakutat homicide trial

Superior Court Judge Louis Menendez

Superior Court Judge Louis Menendez holds up a copy of a forensic firearms report during a tense session in the Robert Kowalski homicide trial on Wednesday. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

The Robert Kowalski homicide trial veered off track again Wednesday with a call for a mistrial because of another mistake by attorneys in the case. This time, the error was charged to the prosecution.

On Monday, public defender Eric Hedland had alleged that prosecutors never notified him about the routine destruction of evidence in the case, then conceded he had the information as early as two years ago.

On Tuesday, tempers flared as attorneys tried to resolve Monday’s evidence issues. They exchanged personally tinged comments, prompting Superior Court Judge Louis Menendez to intervene. Both sides eventually agreed the state had not acted in bad faith when the evidence was destroyed. 

On Wednesday, with the jury out of the courtroom, prosecutor James Fayette attempted to introduce a report drafted by a firearms expert and related photographs. The documents detail laboratory test fires of the shotgun used to kill Sandra Perry in Yakutat in 1996. The photos showed different sooty residue patterns at different distances between the muzzle and a test target.

Fayette admitted his office did not forward the photographs to Kowalski’s defense:

Those were disclosed to Mr. Hedland just this morning. That’s the issue. The point is the photos, the test fires are referenced in the report.”

Hedland responded that the photos were prejudicial.

Judge Menendez allowed their use at trial, but he would not allow the firearms expert to comment on any new observations following his viewing of photographs of Perry’s body upon his arrival in Juneau this week. He was prepared to offer his opinions of the pattern and density of sooty residue on the body.

Hedland moved for a mistrial. Superior Court Judge Louis Menendez denied it. The trial resumes today.

Kowalski is on trial for first- and second-degree murder in Perry’s death at Yakutat’s Glacier Bear Lodge in 1996.

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