Can Alaska Native villagers in the YK Delta get a fair trial?

The Alaska courthouse in Bethel (Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK)

A new court case argues that the way in which state juries are selected in Alaska discriminates against rural, Native communities. The case could significantly impact the Delta’s court system if it’s successful.

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This story started about five years ago outside of Kiana, when Teddy Smith swore he saw an enukin – one of the legendary little people. Smith is Inupiat and a small-time TV actor. At the time, his mother had just died, which had affected him deeply. Smith spent the days following her death camped out in a remote cabin, hiking the tundra and surviving on berries and water. He said that he could hear the enukins’ voices, and they “followed him continually, day and night.” At one point, an enukin tried to enter the remote cabin where he was staying. When Smith saw the enukin, he screamed for it to get out of the cabin and then started shooting at it.

In reality, Smith didn’t shoot an enukin. He shot two hunters, one in the chest and one in the arm, and then fled on a raft down the river. Smith said that he was trying to get back to Kiana to “find out what was real and what isn’t.” The two hunters survived and the State Troopers arrested Smith, charging him with first-degree attempted murder.

At trial, Smith’s attorneys argued that if Smith was going to be judged by a jury of his peers, then some of the jurors in his case had to come from the region’s remote villages. People from hub communities like Kotzebue, they argued, might not understand the cultural significance of enukins. But prosecutors claimed that bringing jurors in from the rural villages would be too expensive. The judge ruled in their favor, and none of the members of Smith’s jury were people who had been raised in the villages. Smith was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to 99 years in prison.

Tara Rich is the Legal and Policy Director of the ACLU in Alaska. Citing a study from the 1990s, she said that rural Alaskans see the court system as remote, intimidating and as an unfathomable institution.

Jury selection has been a problem in Alaska for a long time. Smith’s attorney is appealing his case, and the ACLU and the Native American Rights Fund have jointly filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting that appeal. They argue that Alaska’s current jury selection system violates Smith and other defendants’ civil rights.

Rich said that Alaska’s state court systems do not select jurors from dozens of the state’s remote villages. The state claims that it would be too expensive to transport village residents to hub cities and house them there. These excluded villages are largely Alaska Native, and as a result, Rich said that 30 percent of Alaska Natives will never be called to serve on a jury, even though Alaska Natives are disproportionately represented in cases in the state’s criminal justice system.

According to Rich, the policy of excluding villagers from juries alienates village residents from a criminal justice system that’s supposed to serve them. And when residents are accused of a crime, the jury that judges them might not have any Native members at all.

“And that is such a critical part about the fairness of this process. That decisions are not made, particularly the decision of someone’s freedom, based on someone’s cultural compatibility and ability to relate,” Rich said.

She added that the Bethel Court System is, in some ways, worse than most. It includes more villages than some other courts do. Bethel’s court selects jurors who live within a 50-mile radius of the courthouse, and Aniak and Emmonak’s courthouses also only pull jurors from nearby villages. As a result, Rich said in the YK Delta, “40 percent of Alaska Native residents are never called to a jury. So that’s slightly more than the state average.”

Smith’s appeal, including the brief from the ACLU and NARF, is currently pending before the Alaska Court of Appeals.