No one would ever accuse Phil Weidner of being afraid to make a bold move. The two trials of John Kenneth Peel were littered with the bold steps he’d taken. His decision, early on, to continue with Peel’s disguise — this time with a woman’s wig? Bold. His decision to defy the judge in his questioning of Larry Demmert, Jr.? Bold. His enthusiastic embrace of the drug dealer theory? He didn’t bother to back it with proof. It was enough to mention it — everybody in the jury pool seemed to have heard about fisherman smugglers. Bold.
No Words Could Describe
So we know that Phil Weidner was full of bold assertions. But then came this exchange with Judge Carpeneti, at 11:00 a.m. on Monday, April, 1988.
Judge Carpeneti: “Does the defendant have evidence to present?”
Phil Weidner: ”Based upon the state of the evidence and the burden of proof, the defendant rests his case.”
Had he really said that? Did he really mean it? The shock of those words was palpable in the courtroom. Here was the most voluble defense attorney in the known universe (okay, hyperbole). And he was passing up an opportunity to grind his knife into what remained of the prosecution case. That was either bold. Or reckless.
On A Loop
But he most certainly had done it. There was no going back. This was a bold grab for the jury’s mindshare in its upcoming decision. Once the shock wore off Weidner dove, practically sotto voce, into the routine. He probably had a taped snippet he could put on an endless loop. Your Honor, I move for a judgement of acquittal. Acquittal. Acquittal. Acquittal.
Puffery Sans Angels
The acquittal hearing came down to a few moments of puffery. Weidner declared that troopers had lost evidence that established John Peel’s innocence. It was, he said, the tape recording of a man who claimed to have seen the skiff after the fire. A man who was certain the man in the skiff was not John Peel.
In response, Bob Blasco intoned that the lost evidence never existed. Or, in the alternative, would have had no bearing on the case. It was, at best, a non-statement statement. At least, one imagines, it didn’t do more harm than good. But after all the sturm und drang about police incompetence, Blasco’s rejoinder had an ominously hollow ring.
The next few days brought a fury of last minute activity. Final arguments were waiting in the wings. Not as angels, surely. This trial had exhausted its share of angels.
Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale. That manuscript, started in 1992 and based on court records from the Alaska State Archive, served as the basis for “What Happened in Craig.”
Copyright Leland E. Hale (2021). All rights reserved.