Accused of 2016 murders, Palmer man faces possible death sentence

Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty for a Palmer man accused in a drug-related double homicide in 2016.

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The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage says it’s only the third time in the past 25 to 30 years that a formal intent to pursue the death penalty has been filed in an Alaska case.

According to the indictment against him, 32-year-old John Pearl Smith II committed several drug robberies that culminated in the fatal shootings of Wasilla residents 43-year-old Ben Gross and 30-year-old Crystal Denardi in June of 2016.

Prosecutors say Alaska State Troopers found Gross and Denardi dead in a burning home, along with another injured man. Smith was a suspect from the beginning and was arrested after two weeks of intense surveillance.

The indictment includes charges of using a firearm in a murder, burglary and attempted drug possession.

Prosecutors announced Tuesday that if Smith is convicted they will pursue the death penalty. The intent to seek the death penalty is a formal declaration by the U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, made Monday following a lengthy review by Department of Justice officials in Washington, D.C.

The last Alaska case in which the Department of Justice sought the death penalty was in 2008, against Joshua Wade, who ultimately admitted to two murders in a deal that allowed him to avoid the possibility of execution. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the only other Alaska case in modern memory seeking the death penalty was in the 1990s.

Capital punishment is not an option under the state’s judicial system, and the last time someone was legally executed for a crime in Alaska was prior to statehood.