Constitutional Law

Did local defense attorney's criticism spark governor's unusual firing of top prosecutor?

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A longtime prosecutor says she was fired Sunday by Alaska’s governor in a move that news reports suggest may be unprecedented.

No specifc reason was given by newly elected Gov. Bill Walker, who himself is an attorney with expertise in oil and gas matters, for forcing Bethel District Attorney June Stein from her job, according to the Alaska Dispatch News. She had been a prosecutor there for more than 25 years and began working as DA in 2011.

“I had received some concern from the area about how she was working out in that area,” Walker told the newspaper Tuesday during a a brief telephone interview. “It just appeared that she wasn’t–that it was not a good fit.”

Lawyers who have practiced in Bethel for years and are familiar with Stein’s work described her as hardworking, competent and dedicated to a difficult job.

The Bethel DA’s job is “the most difficult job in the state in terms of being a lawyer,” Marcelle McDannel told the newspaper. Now an Anchorage-based criminal defense attorney, she worked as an assistant prosecutor in Bethel during the 1990s and sometimes has handled cases against Stein in recent years.

“The cases out there are just this influx of sex crimes, sexual abuse of a minor, sexual assault, with murder coming in on top of that,” McDannel said. “For a prosecutor it is a demanding, draining and often depressing caseload.”

However, Bethel defense attorney Jim Valcarce, who contributed to Walker’s campaign and served on his transition team, has been outspoken in his criticism of Stein. He said he made his feelings known to the governor, although he has no idea whether his comments influenced the decision to remove Stein, according to newspaper and KYUK .

In particular, Valcarce openly disagrees with the unduly harsh prosecutorial approach he says Stein’s office took to domestic violence cases under her leadership, limiting the future career options of those convicted. Stein’s resistance to negotiating plea deals and rehabilitation programs for those with alcohol and life-trauma issues made her ineffective at the job, he contends.

“Young men in this area pleading out at arraignment to DV Assault 4’s. Their lives are ruined,” he told KYUK. “They’re never going to work in any state jobs, they’re never going to work in the good jobs in the village.”

While “it sounds great when you say we’re being tough on crime, we’re putting away these wife-beaters,” there is broad category of cases that fall within the domestic violence ambit because of the limited population in the area, Valcarce said. “DV is so broad out here. That’s why we have the highest rate of domestic violence, because DV is anybody–if it was a former girlfriend, if you lived together, brothers, sisters.”

Walker confirmed that he had heard from Valcarce, but said the defense attorney was not Stein’s only critic, the Dispatch News reports.

It appears that the governor’s removal of Stein from office is a first for the state, emeritus history professor Steve Haycox of the University of Alaska-Anchorage tells the newspaper.

John Havelock, a former state attorney general during the 1970s under Gov. Bill Egan, agreed.

“You want to keep criminal prosecutions separate from politics,” Havelock told the newspaper Tuesday. “When I was AG, the governor never intervened, and my observation is that no other governor has ever proposed to intervene in the management of the criminal justice system.”

Walker said Stein had been offered another job in Anchorage, but she denied that this occurred Sunday, when Deputy Attorney General Richard Svobodny flew to Bethel to deliver the bad news as she was at work.

“I was not offered another job,” Stein said Tuesday. “I specifically said to Svobodny, ‘Am I being fired or transferred?’ He said ‘fired.’ ”

The Dispatch News says it was unable to reach either Svobodny or state attorney general Craig Richards for comment on Tuesday. Richards is Walker’s former law partner, the newspaper notes.

See also:

New York Times (reg. req.): “Bill Walker, Next Governor for Alaska, Traversed Unlikely Path”

KTVA: “Alaska Gov.-elect Walker names full transition team”

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