Judge rejects claim that attorneys botched trial in Tenakee Springs homicide case

Tenakee Springs

Tenakee Springs. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KTOO)

A Juneau man serving decades in prison for murdering a Tenakee Springs woman exactly 16 years ago has lost a challenge claiming that his defense attorneys didn’t work in his best interests. But it does not necessarily mean the end of the line for James Harmon.

On New Year’s Eve of 2002, Harmon was identified by a witness as trying to sexually assault Maggie Wigen at her cabin in Tenakee Springs.

Then in March 2003, the 19-year-old Wigen disappeared.

Harmon, then 24 years old, was interviewed by investigators, but he was not initially placed into custody and he quickly left Tenakee Springs.

Wigen’s body was found a month later, buried inside an earthen dam that was under construction near her cabin.

Harmon was arrested over a year after that.

Nearly 60 witnesses testified during Harmon’s trial in Juneau in 2005. He was convicted and sentenced to 72 years in prison for murder, sexual assault and attempted sexual assault, and for taking $100 bills that belonged to Wigen. His conviction and sentence was later upheld after a standard appeal to the Alaska Court of Appeals.

Harmon then sought something different from a regular appeal that is called post-conviction relief.

Petitions for post-conviction relief are usually submitted to the trial court and includes review of issues that were not obvious at trial, like new evidence or juror and prosecutorial misconduct. They may also include claims alleging the conviction or sentence violated the U.S. or Alaska constitutions. As a possible remedy, a defendant might ask for the conviction to be thrown out or ask for a new trial or sentence.

During oral arguments last August, Harmon claimed inadequate or insufficient representation by public defenders David Seid and Julie Willoughby, his two trial attorneys in Juneau.

Harmon referred to a long list of utterances and instances in which he believed demonstrated that his attorneys were “unprepared for court on more than one occasion,” unenthusiastic or indifferent about representing him, and “failed to inform (him) about certain (false) claims by the state.”

In a 137-page decision issued on Jan. 24, Ketchikan Superior Court Judge Trevor Stephens denied the petition for post-conviction relief and wrote that Harmon failed to prove any of his claims.

Harmon has not yet exhausted all of his options. He can still appeal the decision to the Alaska Court of Appeals, which is probably why Stephens issued such a long and carefully detailed decision in the case.

Seid is currently a supervising attorney at the Juneau public defenders office, while Willoughby is now a private defense attorney based in Juneau.

According to an online victim notification network, Harmon is now 40 years old and was most recently held at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau. He is scheduled for release in 2052.

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