On Friday, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich released an inflammatory television commercial featuring a former sergeant from the Anchorage Police Department, talking about a horrific crime that happened last year in Anchorage, where a two year old was raped, and two of her elderly relatives were murdered. The victims were from Cambodia. The murdered couple had survived the Khmer Rouge. The ad lays the blame for the crimes on GOP Senate challenger Dan Sullivan, who was the state’s former Attorney General.
The ad is the closest thing to a Willie Horton ad that we have ever seen in Alaska. One of the differences is that Willie Horton– the Massachusetts man who raped a woman while on furlough during Gov. George Dukakis’ term– was already convicted and doing time for his crime when Republican political operatives took hold of the issue.
Jerry Active, the man accused of the crimes in Anchorage, pleaded not guilty and is still in jail, awaiting trial, which is scheduled to start Sept. 22.
The current attorney general Michael Geraghty sent out a statement on Saturday, saying the charge against Sullivan, “has no basis in fact.” Geraghty also said that “drawing attention to the case,” is “inappropriate and offensive,” given that it’s an open case.
Sullivan shot back with his own commercial. He went so far as to name the accused, something that Begich’s ad didn’t do.
If the crime continues to be used in the campaign, it will likely delay what will already be an expensive, and emotionally charged trial.
Active had been recently released from jail in 2013 when he allegedly committed the crimes.
Due to his criminal history, he probably should not have been on the streets. However, because of an error in a state data base maintained by the Department of Public Safety, which prosecutors and the courts rely on to determine a defendant’s history, he was given a light sentence in 2010 for a sexual assault offense. He was given that sentence when Senate candidate Dan Sullivan was the state’s attorney general. A state prosecutor and the court all signed off on the plea agreement.
Sullivan was not the AG when any of Active’s crimes occurred, nor when the mistake in the database was made. Sullivan says he’s is in no way culpable for the crimes.
A spokesperson with the AG’s office said that she couldn’t talk in detail about the case for fear of sullying a jury pool.
Indeed, if Begich or any group associated with him continues with the ads—which is likely—and if Active goes to trial, it will be difficult to find any juror who hasn’t heard of him, in the same way that it’s hard to conceive of many people in Massachusetts not having heard of Willy Horton.
Rex Butler, a high-profile Anchorage based defense lawyer who is not involved in the case, called the ads “exploitive” and predicted that the major cities will be saturated with them. “These two politicians are stars,” he said. “People will listen to them.”
He said that if he were the defense attorney on the case, he would make a stab at asking the judge for an injunction to squelch the ads. However, because First Amendment rights are involved, that would be difficult. The defense could ask that the case be moved to another community, perhaps in rural Alaska. But even then, finding a big enough jury pool in rural Alaska is difficult in the best of circumstances.
Basically, Butler said, “there is no remedy.” Which is a shame, he said, because everyone, including the victims and the state, have a stake in ensuring that all defendants have a fair trial with an unbiased jury pool.
In an interview, Tim Petumenos, a former state prosecutor, who is also a Democrat, said that another option is for the judge to agree to delay the trial until memories fade.
Petumenos has prosecuted many high-profile cases in Alaska, including the sensational 1980s Mackay murder trial. Because of the publicity, the case was moved from Anchorage to Fairbanks. In addition, he interviewed every juror individually to ensure they hadn’t been biased by the publicity. Jury selection normally takes two days at most. The jury selection in that case took four weeks.
In the end, regardless of how much publicity the crime gets, “it’s not going to derail the case,” Petumenos said. “But it could delay it. And it will be more expensive,” Petumenos said.
Aside from how the politicization of the case could affect the trial, Petumenos questioned if the ad targeting Sullivan is fair. He worked in the state’s attorney general’s office, and he said that he knows that the AG rarely, if ever, oversees specific plea deals. “It’s a political judgment call,” he said about using the case against Sullivan, one that could be seen as a stretch. “Could you also hang this on the governor?” he asked.
Petumenos also brought up Willie Horton and the ad campaign using his crime to derail Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign. He said that he sees similarities between the way that Horton’s crimes were used, and the way Active’s crimes are being used. “History hasn’t smiled,” on those who made the ads, he said. “And I’m a Democrat.”
He didn’t mention that the ads worked, and George H. W. Bush, not Dukakis, was elected president.
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