Judge won't reduce bail in Soldotna assault case

Posted: Friday, May 31, 2002

A Kenai Superior Court judge last week declined to reduce the bail for a Soldotna man charged with the attempted murder and sexual assault of a Soldotna woman.

Judge Jonathan Link ruled last Friday Justin A. Starkweather posed a threat to the community and was a flight risk, so the bail amount of $250,000 was not reduced as the public defender had sought.

Link, however, did approve Starkweather's grandmother, Nancy A. Lathey of Kenai, as a third-party guardian if Starkweather's bail is met and he is released until his trial, which is scheduled for the week of Sept. 9.

In the hearing, Assistant Public Defender Margaret Moran, Starkweather's attorney, argued that since Starkweather was arrested Feb. 13, there has been no direct evidence, like blood samples or positive identifications, connecting him to the crime.

"There's still no evidence linking Justin to this offense," Moran said. "What DNA testing has been done does not implicate Justin. We're three-and-a-half months into this investigation, and all this period of time he's been in jail, so we're asking the court to release him to his grandmother."

During the bail review hearing, District Attorney Dwayne McConnell presented the evidence on which a grand jury based its Feb. 22 indictment.

The victim, a 46-year-old Soldotna woman who lived in the vicinity of West Poppy Lane, was found in her home by a friend Feb. 2. The friend saw the facing of the door from the garage into the house was broken. He called for the victim, didn't hear an answer, searched the house and found her in her bedroom.

According to McConnell, the victim was found on the floor with a large piece of furniture overturned on her. Virtually all her major facial bones were broken, her hip and jaw bones were broken, there were gouges taken out of her face and she had been sexually assaulted with a back scratcher, McConnell said.

"She was beaten within an inch of her life," he said "... She was on life support for several weeks. She didn't know where she was or what year it was for several weeks."

Troopers investigated and found several sets of footprints outside the house. One set stopped on a snow berm above the victim's bedroom window, a set was found leading to the back door of a house across the street, where Starkweather lived, another led from the victim's house to a side road, and there were potentially more. Moran said the footprints found have not been matched with any shoes.

Troopers found a blood spot at the back door of Starkweather's residence and obtained a warrant to search the home. In a garbage can, they found a pair of gym shorts with blood on them that Starkweather admits were his, McConnell said. They also found a pair of pants with blood on the bottoms, a sweatshirt, socks, black gloves and a pair of tennis shoes in black garbage bags in a truck in front of the house; Starkweather also admits those were his, said McConnell. The tennis shoes had blood and hair on them. Another pair of Starkweath-er's shoes were found in a crawl space under the garage wrapped in clothes.

Starkweather showed troopers a jewelry box he had that belonged to the victim. According to McConnell, Starkweather told troopers that he was given the box the night before the crime took place by a female friend. He also told troopers the friend asked to borrow a pair of his shoes when she gave him the jewelry box, and that the shoes he loaned her were the ones found in the garbage bags .

"The defense surmised that the girl and a friend of hers are the culprits," McConnell said.

Troopers investigated the girl and no longer consider her a suspect, McConnell said. Moran said that she had not been informed that the girl's male friend was no longer a suspect.

According to McConnell, the girl said Starkweather called her repeatedly around the time of the crime and told her in one conversation that "I did something awful."

The victim has not conclusively identified who her assailant was. At one point she said the across-the-street neighbor did it, McConnell said, but she later identified a person from her childhood and now she doesn't know who did it.

The state crime lab is still examining evidence. They have not found any DNA of Starkweather's at the crime scene, Moran said. Spots found on the victim's night shirt are currently being tested.

McConnell presented other information to Link that he said spoke to the danger Starkweather poses to the community. California authorities want to question Starkweather about an event in August 2000, in which he allegedly argued with a girlfriend when another man stepped in. Stark-weather and the female left, then Starkweather allegedly returned with an ax and attempted to assault the man.

McConnell also mentioned three other assault reports from when Starkweather was a juvenile.

McConnell said Starkweather has indicated he was involved with gang- and drug-related crimes while in California and that he has had an anger problem for quite some time.

"From the state's view, there is a strong circumstantial evidence case (against Starkweather)," McConnell said. "We believe he is a flight risk and a danger to the community."

Moran responded that some of the information McConnell presented, like the alleged incidents in California, were things Starkweather has not had an opportunity to respond to. She also pointed out the evidence against Starkweather is circumstantial.

Link agreed the evidence was, as near as he could tell, entirely circumstantial. But he explained that circumstantial evidence is entitled to as even a weight as direct evidence in the state of Alaska.

The severity of the crime was a deciding factor in Link's decision to not reduce the bail, he said. Starkweather is charged with first-degree sexual assault, first-degree attempted murder, first-degree assault, first-degree burglary and fourth-degree theft.

First-degree sexual assault carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison. First-degree attempted murder carries a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 99 years. The burglary charge, a class-B felony, carries a maximum sentence of 10 years and a $50,000 fine. The theft charge is a class-B misdemeanor.

Starkweather is entitled to a reasonable bail, Link said, but he is not entitled to the assumption that he should be released on his own recognizance and guardianship as with lesser crimes.

"I'm pleased with the outcome because it will keep him off the streets for (the victim's) safety and everybody's safety," the victim's sister said. "Because nobody knows for sure whether he did this."

Lathey, Starkweather's grandmother, declined comment about the hearing's outcome.

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