Ever the dramatist, defense attorney Phil Weidner saved his biggest card for last. It was unmistakable, looming large on the easel. He turned to it as he finished his opening statement. “January 1988,” it read. “WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?” Weidner provided his own answer, as he penned the words, “Not Guilty.”
Not Quite Biblical
The placards were prophetic. They predicted the tone of the second trial. The first month was not much more than a continuous dispute, moderated with varying degrees of success by Judge Carpeneti. Although Mary Anne Henry had streamlined her witness list, and rearranged the order in which they appeared, Phillip Weidner met it with the same derision. Same shit, different day.
When Henry led off with Sergeant Stogsdill, she was reverting to what had worked so well at both grand juries. That was the guilty meme.
When Phillip Weidner accused the trooper of failing to gather evidence at the crime scene, of not searching for fingerprints, of lying to witnesses in his zeal to arrest John Peel, he was repeating his criticisms from the first trial. Those were the not guilty memes.
Blow Up On Aisle One
When they got to Stogsdill’s fifth day on the stand, however, things really blew up. Mary Anne Henry had started questioning Stogsdill on redirect, and was taking him through the list of trooper mistakes that Phillip Weidner had identified. Those mistakes notwithstanding, Henry asked, “Is this case solved?”
“Yes,” Stogsdill replied.
“Do you think it’s fair that John Kenneth Peel should be allowed to get away with murder because you made mistakes?” Henry asked. This is the point where guilty, not guilty took on an unhinged seriousness.
Weidner shot out of his chair with objections. Carpeneti sent the jury out of the courtroom. During the course of the trial, this ritual would be repeated often. Despite the judge’s best efforts to avoid it, both sides had developed hair-trigger reactions to any offense by their counterparts, real or imagined.
“This is outrageous misconduct by the prosecution,” Weidner said once the jury gone. “It’s asking the jury to disregard the evidence.” Weidner charged that Henry was trying to force a mistrial, because “they’re losing the case; they know it.” As follow-up to his accusation, Weidner called for the very mistrial he claimed Mary Anne Henry was trying to force upon him. Guilty. Not Guilty.
Henry declined to respond to what she characterized as Weidner’s “emotional outburst.” She denied that she was trying to improperly influence the jury. She added that Weidner’s persistent comment that Peel was an “innocent man, falsely accused,” was just as prejudicial. When Weidner laughed at one of her questions to Judge Carpeneti, Henry’s voice crackled with anger.
“Mr. Weidner thinks my question was funny,” she said. “I don’t think a murder trial is funny.”
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.