WASILLA — Erick Almandinger and Bradley Renfro’s sentencing has been delayed even further due to travel restrictions surrounding COVID-19 and defense attorneys attempts to pull in medical experts to assess their clients during a telephonic hearing Friday, July 17.
“We’ll cross that bridge as to when the sentencing will actually be,” Palmer Judge Gregory Heath said.
David Grunwald, 16, was kidnapped, assaulted, pistol whipped, and ultimately murdered in November of 2016. Almandinger, Renfro Austin Barrett, and Dominic Johnson have all been convicted of first-degree murder in the Grunwald murder trial.
Almandinger was the first of the four to be convicted for Grunwald’s murder. A Fairbanks jury found Renfro guilty on eight of the nine charges, including murder. However, Renfro was found not guilty on the assault charges.
Sentencing for all four cases was intended to begin in October, but Almandinger and Renfro’s attorneys have been attempting to call in medical experts to assess their clients prior to sentencing hearings.
Renfro’s defense attorney Chris Provost stated he would have at least one expert “for sure” during the status hearing.
Almandinger’s defense attorney John Putikka also indicated he had an expert lined up, but that expert is based out of California and due to travel registrations hasn’t been able to assess his client in person.
“I don’t know at this point judge, if I’m gonna call him. Obviously I don’t know that until he gives me an assessment,” Putikka said.
Putikka asked Heath if they would be able to transport Almandinger to a “non DOC” location for a sit down assessment.
Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak said Provost’s in-state doctor should be able to provide the assessment in a reasonable amount of time.
“We’re in July right now it seems like there’s plenty of time for the doctor to finish...” Kalytiak said.
Kalytiak also argued that regardless of the last few months in the pandemic, there’s already been substantial time waiting for Renfro’s defense to find an expert.
“What about the year and half that we had before COVID? I mean it still sounds like everything is being done late in this case in terms of sentencing,” Kalytiak said.
Putikka was assigned to Almandinger in April of 2019, coming in after his first attorney Jon Iannaccone left the case. He defended his position by stating he “came in cold” in the Grunwald case.
“This is a very complex, complicated case with a very intense investigation,” Putikka said. “ I’ve been working fairly diligently right up until the COVID virus hit.”
Health stated that he believed that Putikka’s expert should be ready by September and they should be able to figure out if the doctor will assess Almandinger in person or through video conferencing.
“The world is doing that now judge,” Kalytiak said.
Heath asked Putikka if video conferencing would suffice and the attorney stated his expert felt it wouldn’t be.
“That’s where the experts are differing Judge,” Kalytiak said.
Kalytiak then referred to a recent API case that was all done, including the interview by a doctor entirely over Zoom.
Heath said that was a “fairly complex issue” that they would have to address as they got closer to the actual assessment.
Putikka said he needs to confirm if the doctor is willing to travel. Heath said Putikka has “a week or two” to do that, and that we would wait to file the expedited motion until then.
“We need to make this happen some way or another,” Heath said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Heath also said that they would work on some sort of sentencing availability for Renfro. He said Johnson’s sentencing is currently scheduled for late October, indicating the goal is to wrap up all four cases by December.
“Come september the [court] schedule can resume… then I guess we’ll really know what the status is of COVID in Alaska. If it’s safe enough to do jury trials… then I think we’ll probably be okay with the sentencing in this case. Let’s just see where we’re at by the end of the year,” Heath said.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org