WASILLA — Erick Almandinger, Dominic Johnson, and Bradley Renfro are the last three cases that have yet to be sentenced in the David Grunwald murder trial. All three cases were pushed during telephonic status hearings Wednesday, Dec. 30.
The Palmer Courthouse is currently closed to in-person hearings. Judge Gregory Heath noted that in-person proceedings probably won’t resume until at least March.
“We’ll know more in the next 30 to 60 days on how that’s going to proceed,” Heath said.
Almandinger and Renfro’s sentencing hearings haven’t been scheduled since both cases are attempting to gain a psychological evaluation with a certified expert.
Alamdinger’s defense attorney John Putikka told the court that he didn’t have an expert ready. He said that he had an expert based in California lined up, but he was told by their office that he wouldn’t travel outside the state because his medical issues put him at higher risk for catching COVID-19.
“I don’t know what’s gonna happen as far as an expert… I don’t know that we’re gonna have an expert,” Putikka said.
Putikka said that he’s attempting to work with another out-of-state expert who’s never provided evaluations in Alaska before and she isn’t licensed for Alaska. He said that he contacted the Board of Psychology in Juneau to see if they can get the expert a temporary waiver to provide an assessment for Almandinger, but he hasn’t heard back from them.
“I’ve explained to Mr. Almandinger a few weeks ago that I just don’t know that we’re gonna be able to make this happen. I do think it’s necessary. I do think that it’s an important part of this case. I think it’s necessary before we go forward with sentencing. But, with COVID and just everything that’s happened over the past year, I don’t know how long it’s gonna take me to get an expert, to either get licensed in the state of Alaska or get a waiver…” Putikka said.
Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak said the “ball has been in the defendant’s court” since the last attempt to schedule a sentencing hearing.
“I guess I would just like the final answer as to whether they’ve decided to move forward without an expert,” Kalytiak said.
Heath asked Putikka where he would like to go from here as far as experts. Putikka said that he could possibly get an expert by April, feeling that the rollout of the vaccines and span of time could make things easier. He noted that his client also would prefer to be sentenced in person.
“I’ll continue trying… Hopefully with the next 30 to 60 days I’ll hear one way or another… I don’t intend to give up on that because I do think it’s necessary, but I do understand Judge, that the clock is ticking,” Putikka said.
Heath pointed out that even if they did have the expert ready, they wouldn’t be able to hold the sentencing hearing until “at least the end of March at the earliest.” He said that he didn’t have a definite date yet, but he would refer with the court system and decide a date for Almandinger’s next status hearing where his defense can confirm whether or not they’ll move forward with an expert.
“If you’re not calling an expert, we can probably do it in the spring, early summer. If you are, we’ll have to kind of figure that out from there,” Heath said.
During Renfro’s status hearing, Heath said that his next status hearing would also be in March, according to David’s surviving mother Edie Grunwald. She said Renfro’s defense is still waiting on the final report from their expert’s psychological analysis.
“He has a final interview with him. So, they’re gonna check to see if they can do it telephonically or via Zoom so they can get the final report. The district attorney, Roman said he would need at least 30 days to respond,” Grunwald said.
Grunwald and her husband Ben have been to nearly every single hearing that has to do with their son’s murder since 2016. She said the process has been very slow, even before the pandemic.
“It’s frustrating. I mean, they’re dragging this out. I mean they’ve known about this expert now for a couple years” Grunwald said.
Johnson was scheduled to be sentenced this week but his sentencing hearing has been pushed to May 5. Grunwald said that she feels hopeful that Johnson will actually be sentenced during that time, hoping it doesn’t take long for the other two cases to follow suit.
“Now you’re talking four years later after the act… We were hoping to get it done in 2020,” Grunwald said. “Each step is a step forward. It’s not like they’re going anywhere.”
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org