JUNEAU, Alaska — A federal appeals court panel has ordered a new trial for a man convicted in the 2012 killings of two co-workers at a Coast Guard communications station in Alaska, according to a decision released Tuesday.
The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that James Wells did not receive a fair trial and reversed Wells’ conviction on murder and weapons charges.
The panel also found the case should be reassigned, citing comments the judge made at Wells’ sentencing, though it was split on that issue.
The majority opinion was written by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Walter, a senior judge in the western district of Louisiana who was designated to serve on the panel.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Alaska said it is reviewing the decision to determine its options, including whether to seek a review by a larger 9th Circuit panel.
“If the case is finally remanded, we are committed to moving forward with a retrial of James Wells,” the U.S. attorney’s office said.
Wells was convicted in 2014 in the shooting deaths of Coast Guardsmen Petty Officer 1st Class James Hopkins and retired Chief Petty Officer Richard Belisle on Kodiak Island two years earlier.
Prosecutors argued that Wells, a Coast Guard civilian technician, resented the growing influence of Belisle and Hopkins in the shop where he was an antenna expert. They said he planned an alibi, sneaked onto the communications station and killed the men.
The defense countered that authorities immediately focused on Wells and ignored other possible suspects. The defense said prosecutors had no eyewitnesses and no physical evidence linking Wells to the deaths.
Following Wells’ conviction, then-U.S. Attorney for Alaska Karen Loeffler said justice had prevailed after an arduous, circumstantial case.
The appeals court panel found the testimony of a forensic psychologist put forth as an expert in workplace violence should not have been allowed. The testimony, which included discussion of characteristics of those who carry out such acts, was “improperly used by the Government, in conjunction with its overbroad motive theory, to substantively connect the strands of circumstantial evidence in such a way as to fit Wells into the criminal profile,” the opinion states.
On another issue, the majority opinion took issue with the government challenging the appointment of a second attorney to help represent Wells, saying it carried a “reproachable air of stacking the deck.”
But the opinion also found that a magistrate judge did not abuse his discretion in granting the government’s motion to excuse the second attorney once the government decided not to pursue the death penalty.
The second attorney eventually rejoined the defense team before trial, the opinion states.
Circuit Court Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen wrote that the majority opinion is right in its criticism of the government’s conduct. But she said she has found nothing clearly prohibiting the government from seeking removing of an attorney under these circumstances. She suggested that the U.S. Department of Justice could provide training and guidance to prosecutors to avoid overreach.
Circuit Court Judge A Wallace Tashima split from the majority on the issue of reassigning the case.
“In sum, I do not believe that a judge’s expression of agreement with the verdict, however strong, itself can serve as sufficient evidence that the judge will be unable to afford the defendant a fair retrial,” he wrote.