Small-town trial could be among many to come

Posted: Sunday, July 07, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- It was a little like having a trial in your living room.

As defense attorney Bill Satterberg addressed the jury during the recent trial of Larry Wholecheese in Nenana District Court, two jurors in the front row stretched out, their feet resting against the legs of the attorney's table and chair.

Behind Satterberg, more than a dozen spectators in folding chairs crammed in the back of the 40-foot-by-30-foot courtroom, forcing an Alaska State Trooper to act as security guard from the hallway of the one-story building.

''This is sort of the most unpretentious trial I've ever been in,'' said Superior Court Judge Charles Pengilly, who usually presides over a cavernous courtroom in Fairbanks' state-of-the-art Rabinowitz Courthouse.

At the behest of Satterberg, the trial of Wholecheese was held in Nenana, which hadn't hosted a felony case in years. Wholecheese was accused of molesting two girls and starting an armed standoff with officers wanting to question him.

Satterberg said part of the reason for his request was State v. John, a recent Alaska Court of Appeals decision that has led to more opportunities for trials outside of Fairbanks, where most Interior felony proceedings are held.

Satterberg originally filed a motion for the case to be tried in Wholecheese's hometown of Galena. Superior Court Judge Niesje Steinkruger nixed that motion but allowed the trial to go forward in the Nenana court building, which also houses a barber shop and a coin-operated laundry.

Satterberg also recently conducted a major felony trial in Delta Junction. He said he's probably the first private defense lawyer in the Interior to have had trials moved because of the ruling. The idea, he said, is to better offer rural defendants a trial by a jury of their peers.

''I think the people in western Alaska are being shortchanged by not having trials in their communities,'' he said. ''I think they should do far more trials in the villages where the alleged acts took place.''

He said strong-willed juries make for conscientious juries, and independent-minded people are easy to find far away from city lights.

''It takes a certain type of person to live in a small community,'' Satterberg said. ''You want juries to exercise independence, and free will, and judgment.''

Sara Gehrig, who prosecuted the Wholecheese case, said moving trials involve a great deal of extra expense and trouble. She suggested defenders may file the motions in hopes prosecutors will be more amenable to entering into a plea deal.

Whether the State v. John decision will lead to more attorneys seeking felony trials outside of Fairbanks remains to be seen. Pengilly said the ramifications of the decision are still in dispute.

''It's certainly appropriate to say the judges are in a state of disagreement about this,'' he said.

The results of the Wholecheese trial suggest the move had merit for the defense: The Nenana jury acquitted Wholecheese of six of the eight counts against him.

Satterberg said he has two civil trials set for Nenana and Delta Junction and also noted that another criminal proceeding is set to take place in Nenana in August. Wholecheese's brother, Archie Wholecheese faces charges he threw a full beer can at one of the potential witnesses in his brother's case.

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