Appeals court says 99 years too harsh for trooper's murder

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) The Alaska Court of Appeals has directed a Superior Court judge to reconsider the 99-year sentence for second-degree murder he imposed on John Phillips, who killed Alaska State Trooper Bruce Heck in 1997.

The jury in Phillips' 1998 trial rejected a first-degree murder charge and instead chose second-degree murder, which essentially means that Phillips didn't intend to kill Heck but did intentionally assault him.

Judge Larry D. Card misinterpreted an earlier ruling by the Appeals Court on sentencing for the crime, the three-judge panel said in an opinion released Friday.

''Judge Card was wrong when he concluded that Phillips' intentional assault on Trooper Heck meant that the resulting homicide was automatically equivalent in blameworthiness to first-degree murder,'' Judge David Mannheimer wrote in the opinion.

So the panel vacated that part of Phillips' total sentence of 142 years and sent the case back to Judge Card for resentencing.

The appeals court rejected arguments that Judge Card should have declared a mistrial because a huge contingent of uniformed officers attended the trial in its first week. After Phillips' lawyer protested, the judge set a limit of five uniformed officers in the courtroom for the rest of the trial, and the appeals court said that was adequate to ensure a fair trial.

The appeals court also rejected the argument that the 1998 trial was compromised when the prosecutor introduced Trooper Heck's widow to the jurors early in the trial, and rejected appeals on some other issues.

Heck, 42, was killed in January 1997 just off the Glenn Highway at Mile 156 during a struggle with Phillips.

Phillips stole a taxicab while fleeing Anchorage after an armed robbery that came just a day after he was released from prison. Heck, based in Glennallen, spotted and pursued the stolen car, which crashed after a high-speed chase.

Phillips ran into the woods and Heck chased him through deep snow. The two men struggled and Phillips eventually overpowered the trooper. Another trooper arrived at the scene and took Phillips into custody, still wearing one of the handcuffs Heck had tried to put on him.

Defense lawyers at the trial maintained that Heck had a heart condition that actually caused the trooper's death, but they conceded that Phillips assaulted the officer.

In addition to the conviction for second-degree murder, the jury found Phillips guilty of escape, vehicle theft, assault and robbery.

Card levied a sentence of 142 years for all of those crimes. He's been ordered to revisit that sentence within 90 days.

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