Panel faults Bethel judge in jailing of witness

Posted: Thursday, May 25, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A Bethel judge is under fire from the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct for allegedly violating state law and the judicial code by improperly jailing a witness in a criminal case to make sure she stayed sober.

A complaint issued this week says Superior Court Judge Dale Curda also engaged in an improper hearing with the prosecutor in the case. It says he failed to advise the witness, identified in court records as I.W., that she had a right to an attorney or to present evidence in her defense.

Curda has 20 days to respond. His attorney, Jonathon Katcher, said the judge acknowledges and regrets that he made a legal error, but doesn't believe his mistake amounts to a violation of law or the code of judicial conduct.

The complaint centers on the 1995 trial of Wilfred Raphael, who was accused of assaulting and kidnapping I.W., with whom he lived. The Alaska Supreme Court overturned Raphael's conviction in January and ordered a new trial. The high court said Curda's decision to jail I.W. without allowing her to contest his contempt ruling tainted her testimony against Raphael.

According to the Supreme Court opinion and the judicial complaint against Curda, the judge met privately during the trial with the state prosecutor to discuss a ''witness problem.'' The prosecutor told Curda that I.W., brought to Bethel to testify against Raphael and instructed to remain sober, had been evicted from a rooming house for being intoxicated and was unable to remain sober. The prosecutor described her as ''a victim who teeters between recanting one week and testifying about what happened the next.''

Curda reacted by jailing I.W. for contempt until the conclusion of the trial, a period of several days. Over her objections, he placed her children in protective custody. She testified at the trial, and Raphael was convicted.

Katcher told the Anchorage Daily News that the judge believed he was acting in the best interest of I.W. and her children. ''He was motivated by a desire to protect her, and her children, from what appeared to him to be a very serious and substantial risk.''

The commission is a nine-member panel comprised of three judges, three lawyers and three members of the public. It could recommend sanctions to the Supreme Court ranging from a reprimand to removing Curda from the bench, said Marla Greenstein, the commission's executive director. The commission also could decide to dismiss the complaint.

After Curda responds to the complaint, the commission will schedule a formal hearing. The proceeding will be open to the public.

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