Appeal challenges Alaska’s exclusion of village residents from juries

The Alaska Court of Appeals heard arguments Thursday in a case that could have huge implications for how Alaska village residents are included — or excluded — as jurors in trials.

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At the center of the dispute is an appeal by Teddy Kyle Smith, 50, who was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 99 years in prison for shooting two men near his home village of Kiana in 2012.

Smith’s trial was in Kotzebue, the closest courthouse to Kiana but still more than 50 miles away. In general, Alaska jurors are only assigned to criminal trials from communities within 50 miles of the courthouse where the trial is held.

Smith’s lawyers say he was not tried by a jury of his peers, because the trial judge denied their request to expand the jury pool.

Smith’s attorney for the appeal, Kelly Taylor, was in court Thursday in Anchorage and argued that decision infringed on villagers’ rights as well.

“This court will have to decide whether the right to participate in jury service of village residents is violated by their categorical exclusion from the jury panel in this case, and whether Smith’s right to a fair cross-section was violated, where the people who share his experience of living day to day in a remote village location was violated,” Taylor said.

Taylor and others, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Native American Rights Fund, say there is also a racial inequity component to jury selection in Alaska, because villages tend to have a higher proportion of Alaska Native residents.

“Alaska Natives are underrepresented on juries and it means that non-Native residents are over-represented on juries,” Taylor said. “Being on a jury means applying the law. Your vote is an application of the law, and that discrepancy means Alaska Native residents get fewer votes.”

Among other claims, Smith’s lawyers say villagers would have better understood his comments when he said he thought he was shooting at enukin: a name for the “little people” of some Alaska Native legends.

But state attorney Ann Black argued that legend is also shared by people who live outside of villages, including some Kotzebue residents. Likewise, Black and the state court system say jurors from Kotzebue are not so different from residents of villages as to be unfair to a defendant.

The state also says the cost of getting jurors to a courthouse more than 50 miles from where they live presents a logistical and financial burden for the court system.

In court Thursday, Black argued that selection of jurors in Smith’s case was fair according to a past decision by the Alaska Supreme Court.

“The Supreme Court recognized mile radiuses need to be drawn. It’s going to happen,” Black said. “And so long as those lines are drawn in a manner that does not deny a defendant a fair cross-section of the community on his jury venire, then they’re constitutionally sound.”

A three-judge appellate court panel heard both sides’ arguments. It’s unclear when they will hand down a decision.