Kenai DA sets sights on South

Posted: Monday, August 30, 2004

After working 22 years for the state of Alaska, District Attorney Dwayne McConnell is retiring Wednesday from his position as the top prosecutor on the Kenai Peninsula. No replacement has been named.

The 55-year-old attorney plans to relocate to south Texas, where he will join a law firm specializing in civil defense.

"I've been doing this a long time. I recently married, and I'm going to a job with less stress," McConnell said.

"I'm looking at 40-hour weeks and golf on the weekends," he said.

McConnell, who has been the Kenai District Attorney for the past seven years, also has been district attorney in Bethel, Kodiak, Palmer and Anchorage, as well as an assistant district attorney in Juneau.

Of the Kenai position, he said the biggest challenge has been the overwhelming number of cases and not having a large enough staff to handle the load.

He said the Kenai prosecutor's office handled 4,000 cases in 2003, and attorneys there have three times the individual caseload of prosecuting attorneys in jurisdictions such as Anchorage and Juneau.

"I can't tell you why," McConnell said.

He said he has tried for years to get the state to increase the staff size, but only recently has he received the go-ahead to add one attorney, bringing the total to five in Kenai.

The Kenai District Attorney's office also has two paralegal assistants and a clerical staff of four.

"I've been a district attorney around the state for 20 years, and this is the most underfunded (office)," McConnell said.

He said the Kenai office routinely does not have enough lawyers to cover all the courtrooms handling cases.

In addition to the Kenai Courthouse, the Kenai DA is responsible for prosecuting cases in Seward and Homer.

In round numbers, McCon-nell said Homer handles 700 cases a year and about 400 in Seward.

"Whenever we get a lawyer helping out from another office, they say they thought they came from a busy office. Now they know what a busy office is," he said.

Considering the number of court cases handled by Kenai, McConnell said he believes the office is pretty efficient.

"The staff is amazing to do what they do with what they have to work with," he said.

When asked about criticisms that his office overreaches and charges defendant's too severely, McConnell stated matter-of-factly that it is a common complaint by defense lawyers.

"I like to call it defense lawyer whining," he said.

"We are aggressive. We are not afraid to take on a case that we believe a crime has been committed in.

"Sometimes juries have disagreed with us," he said, adding that they must be convinced of a person's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

"That's a tough standard to prove," McConnell said.

"Reasonable doubt is a high standard to reach. I'm not saying it's too high, but it's difficult to get 12 individuals to agree to it.

"The community gets to set the standard of what is reasonable doubt," he said.

Of the more difficult cases Kenai has handled during his term in office, McConnell cites two "no body" cases the Billy D. Smith and the Rocky Seaman cases.

Both involved alleged murders in which no bodies were found.

Smith was convicted of two murder counts, and Seaman was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.

"I think two dangerous people are off the street for virtually life," McConnell said.

Of the things McConnell said he will miss when he leaves the Kenai Peninsula, most prominent will be his "work family."

"I definitely will miss this group of folks. They are very dedicated," he said.

He also said he will miss the beauty of the Kenai area but said he is looking forward to being able to play golf 365 days a year if he wants to.

When asked what his golf handicap is, he chuckled and said, "I'm a duffer."

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