ANCHORAGE -- The Alaska Court of Appeals has denied convicted murderer Paul Stavenjord's claim that he should have received a change of venue due to intense media coverage of his case before his 1998 jury trial in Palmer.
The appeals court, in an opinion released March 28, also disagreed with Stavenjord's contention that police investigators failed to supply a judge with all the facts when applying for search warrants after the slayings of Carl Beery and Deborah Rehor near Chulitna in 1997. Beery and Rehor were reported missing following Memorial Day weekend 1997, when Rehor did not return to work. Stavenjord, who lived in a cabin near the couple's cabin in Chulitna, was questioned during the search for the pair, but was not initially considered a suspect.
That changed, however, after searchers found the bodies of both victims in the Pass Creek area. Stavenjord subsequently dropped out of sight and, after nearly a month-long manhunt, turned himself in to Anchorage police.
A Palmer grand jury indicted Stavenjord on two counts of first-degree murder, one count of first-degree assault and two counts of second-degree theft. At trial, Stavenjord claimed he shot Beery in self-defense after Beery caught Stavenjord and Rehor having consensual sex and opened fire. Beery was killed during that exchange of gunfire, Stavenjord claimed.
Stavenjord was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and acquitted of the other charges. He was sentenced in November 1998 to two 99-year consecutive terms. In his appeal, Stavenjord said search warrants of his person, his property and his vehicles were obtained by police investigators with intentional or reckless misstatements or omission of facts. There was information not provided to the judge when Alaska State Troopers sought a search warrant from the judge, Stavenjord claimed. Some of this information concerned another suspect in the case, a man who had been camping near the area where the victims' bodies had been found. The state asserted that although the camper had been the first suspect of investigators, he had been ruled out before the Stavenjord warrants were sought.
Stavenjord asserted that omitting the information about this other suspect had been reckless. Some of this information included the background and criminal record of the camper and fibers found near Rehor's body that were similar to those in the camper's clothing. Omitted information Stavenjord claimed would have corroborated his whereabouts on May 23 and 24 included receipts from the Igloo, where Stavenjord said he made a purchase while away from Chulitna that weekend.
The appeals court rejected Stavenjord's arguments and upheld the search warrants based on evidence presented at the trial, including Stavenjord's admission at trial that he was involved in the homicides. "Thus, Stavenjord's case at trial affirmatively supported the magistrate's decision to issue the search warrants," the appeals court stated in the opinion. The opinion also stated the potentially reckless omissions were not material to finding probable cause against Stavenjord.
Regarding the claim that the court improperly denied Stavenjord's motion for a change of venue, the appeals court opinion stated, "Even though there was substantial pre-trial publicity, it is apparent that in an area as physically large as the Mat-Su area, considering the size of its population, many people were not influenced by the media coverage." Much of the media coverage in the case chronicled Stavenjord's life, including past criminal activity that was ruled inadmissible during the trial.
None of the selected jurors knew any of the parties involved, according to the court's findings, and at the end of jury selection only one recalled any of the inadmissible evidence about Stavenjord -- one juror remembered something about Stavenjord's involvement in a robbery. The juror was excused from service at that time.
Shortly after his January 1999 sentencing, Stavenjord's public defenders filed a motion in Palmer Superior Court requesting a new trial. The motion was based on claims that Stavenjord lied under oath about the gun used in the killings, and did so at the prompting of his attorneys.
The lie prejudiced the jury, his attorneys claimed. In June 2000, however, Superior Court Judge Eric Smith denied the request for a second trial, stating that while Stavenjord's former defense attorneys may have used bad judgment, their mistakes did not add up to incompetence. Stavenjord's current defense attorney, Assistant Public Defender Margi Mock, said last week she was not certain if she would be requesting a review of the appeal by the Alaska Supreme Court on behalf of her client.
Stavenjord is currently serving his time at the Central Arizona Detention Center in Florence, Ariz.