Hearing ends in Forster case; ruling expected by mid-April

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2005

A Kenai court hearing to determine whether evidence in the David Forster murder trial should be suppressed, concluded Wednesday afternoon and a ruling on the admissibility is expected to be made by mid-April.

Forster, 35, is charged with murdering Kenai Police Officer John Watson on Christmas in 2003.

Defense attorney John Murtagh had filed a motion alleging that taking statements Forster made while in police custody about the shooting death of Watson violated Forster's Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights — the right to remain silent and the right to be represented by a lawyer.

Those statements, according to Murtagh, should not be allowed as evidence during Forster's trial in part because Forster's mental status at the time was questionable.

Superior Court Judge Donald Hopwood scheduled the trial to begin May 16.

Forster is accused of killing Watson late Christmas night after Watson went to Forster's residence on Watergate Way in the Kenai VIP Subdivision in response to an Alaska State Trooper request for help in conducting a welfare check.

At first, Watson reported that Forster's vehicle was not at the residence, but as Watson was leaving, he saw the suspect vehicle drive past him.

He turned around and stopped the vehicle in Forster's driveway, and a female companion of Forster's asked if she could take two dogs from the vehicle into the residence. Watson allowed her to do so.

A few minutes later, he radioed to police dispatch that he needed assistance.

According to troopers, it is believed Forster acted aggressively toward Watson, a struggle broke out, and, at some time, Forster managed to obtain Watson's service weapon, a .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun.

It is believed two shots were fired, one of which struck Watson in the head, killing him.

Forster then allegedly walked into the residence, where the female took the gun from him.

Backup Kenai police and troopers responded to the residence and remained in a standoff with what was believed to be an armed subject inside the residence until 1:07 a.m., when Forster surrendered without incident.

Shortly after the standoff began, the female ran from the residence unharmed.

Kenai District Attorney June Stein on Wednesday called five witnesses to testify that Forster was of sound mental ability after he was arrested following the shooting, and that he understood he was waving his constitutional rights by speaking with investigators.

Kenai Police Officer James Johnson, who was a state trooper at the time of the shooting, testified that Forster was "very calm" and showed concern for his girlfriend, while Johnson was driving Forster from trooper E Detachment headquarters in Soldotna to Central Peninsula General Hospital and then to Wildwood Pretrial Facility.

A friend of Forster's and fellow fishing guide, Ty VanLier, said Forster telephoned him from the jail the morning after the shooting and sounded "normal."

"He wasn't as peppy," VanLier said.

"He asked me to take care of his girls," VanLier said, explaining that Forster was referring to his girlfriend and his dogs.

Police had called VanLier to the Forster residence during the standoff to assist in getting the suspect to surrender.

During cross examination by Murtagh, VanLier was asked if he recalled his impression of Forster when he eventually exited the house.

"I said, 'That's not Dave,'" VanLier said.

"I never seen somebody wiped — a blank.

"There was nothin' there ... no expression," he said.

"I figured he woulda said something. He didn't say nothin'," VanLier said.

Testifying telephonically from Oregon, retired trooper investigator Jane Schied, told the court she read Forster his Miranda rights and he understood what he was doing when he waved those rights.

"What do you do to assure that a person understands Miranda?" asked Stein.

"I take it part by part to be sure they understand," Schied said.

She also said she used her 22 years of experience and training to observe a person's nonverbal communication body language, including eye contact and hand, arm and feet movement.

"You interviewed him four times. Did his demeanor change?" Stein asked.

"No. He was very focused. He did not wander off. There was no hysteria, no crying, no long pauses. He did not pace the floor," Schied said.

When Murtagh questioned Schied, he attempted to pin her down on specifically what Forster's body language was during specific questions.

She said she could not recall that specifically, but said he displayed "no extraordinary, unusual body language."

"What were his nonverbal (communications) when he told you the story of the devil trying to kill him and he scaring the devil?" asked Murtagh.

"He was calm, focused, his legs were relaxed," she said.

"He told you Satan made him step on candles. He told you he understood some of his Miranda rights?" asked Murtagh.

"Yes sir," Schied said.

"I would not have continued if I didn't think he understood his rights," she said.

Elaine Olson, a mental health clinician at Wildwood Correctional Facility, testified that when she first interviewed Forster, he claimed he heard voices and believed the devil resided in his cell.

Initially she recommended that Forster remain on suicide watch at Wildwood, but "removed him from precautions" after interviewing him Dec. 29, four days after the shooting.

In her report, she wrote that Forster did not display signs of mental illness.

"He never did say he was suicidal," Olson said.

During the interview Dec. 29, Forster told Olson he could no longer to talk to her, she said.

At the completion of testimony, Judge Hopwood instructed the defense to file a written brief with the court stating its position by Feb. 10. He then asked for the state's response by Feb. 28 and gave the defense until March 4 to reply to that.

He is expected to rule on whether to allow a jury to hear Forster's statements to police by mid-April, one month before the trial is set to begin.

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