Judge’s tell juries that opening statements are not evidence. These emotion-laden declarations, the reasoning goes, put facts second. They are narratives designed to orient jurors toward the “theory of the case.” Yet… first impressions count. A lot. And for the John Peel jury, the defense was especially keen on letting the jury know what they thought of the State’s case. It was, they insisted, based on dreams, drugs and lies.
The defense had it’s own artist-in-residence, one Josef Princiotta. His boldly lettered signage dominated the courtroom during Phil Weidner’s opening statement. Were they provocative? You bet. Even Judge Carpeneti wondered if they weren’t more than a bit… over-the-top. Consider this one: “STACKED DECK PHOTO LINEUP.”
Carpeneti narrowed his eyes. Wasn’t “stacked deck” argumentative?
“If there is a problem on it, I guess we can white it out right now,” Weidner replied. “I just want to address the jury.”
Carpeneti pointed to other placards that seemed to violate the protective order designed to guard against bias. There as one, for example, that referred to Mark Coulthurst’s finances as “on the brink.” Weidner countered that the judge had ordered him “not to say his finances were illegal.” In the end, the judge let the placards stay, noting that while they used “colorful language,” that didn’t make them objectionable. So there is was. Dreams, drugs and lies was about to become a thing.
But it wasn’t Mark Coulthurst who was the object of Weidner’s ire. That honor was reserved for Larry Demmert, Jr. Demmert was the one person who could put John Peel at the murder scene. The one person who could link him to the victims. The one person among the prosecution witnesses who knew the Investor crew — and John Peel.
They had to destroy Larry Demmert, Jr. The defense would use dreams, drugs and lies to do the dirty work.
In all of its focus on Larry Demmert, Jr., the defense skirted the boundaries of “playing the race card.” There was no mistaking that Larry Demmert was an Alaska Native. His family had long threads into the aboriginal communities on Prince of Wales Island. One cannot visit Craig without seeing or hearing the name Demmert.
But the heritage of slurs surrounding Native peoples too often include derogatory references to drugs or drink. It was a nod and a wink to pin that label on Larry Demmert, Jr. And never have to speak its name.
Excerpts from the unpublished original manuscript, “Sailor Take Warning,” by Leland E. Hale.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 (2020). All rights reserved.