Alaska, Crime, Economics

Costly Seward felony trial of Somali immigrant reduced to time served

Seward City Hall in which the Superior Court Trial took place December 7-11. Heidi Zemach photo.
Seward City Hall in which the Superior Court Trial took place December 7-11. Heidi Zemach photo.

By Heidi Zemach for SCN-

The State of Alaska held a week-long Superior Court trial in Seward stemming from a drunken fight over a missing cellphone that occurred primarily between two seafood processing workers who were rooming together at a Lowell Point bunk house. The dispute occurred in late June between two workers, one from East Sudan, the other from Somalia, two traditionally warring tribal North African nations. Each man had spent time in refugee camps prior to fleeing their respective countries for the safety of America about a decade ago.

Dek Mohammed Issa, 34, of Somalia, an Anchorage-based mechanic, was indicted by a Grand Jury for assault in the first degree, a Class A felony (for causing, or intending to cause serious physical injury to another), which could bring a 10-year jail sentence, followed by deportation back so Somalia. Issa was also indicted for assault in the third degree (which includes injury with a weapon, or placing of another in imminent fear of serious physical injury by means of a dangerous weapon), stemming from the June 28th incident.

Issa was accused of putting his roommate Piot Nyok, of South Sudan in fear of his life, and trying to stab or strangle him. Nyok apparently did cut Issa’s finger with a six-inch knife, requiring a Band-Aid, but Issa claimed he had cut himself. The knife allegedly came out after Nyok had held Issa up against the wall, threatening to kill him.

There had been quite a bit of drinking going on, both at the time, and the night before. But several fellow coworkers, who later became witnesses, had apparently tried to separate them and stop the dispute.

The evening before, Issa had lent Nyok his cell phone to listen to music on.  But the next morning, when he asked for the phone back, Nyok claimed not to have it, and suggested that another man had taken it.

Issa, and a fellow seafood worker called 911 and Alaska State Troopers responded after Issa and the other worker discovered a SIM card, and some of their other things in the ground floor garage of the Lowell Point bunk house, where the workers would relax between long shifts at Resurrection Bay (Pacific) Seafoods.

When called back to the bunk house that afternoon, following the physical altercation, Troopers read Nyok a Domestic Violence booklet, and gave it to him. Issa was arrested and remanded to the Seward jail for one count of third degree assault, a Class-C felony.

After the five-day Superior Court trial December 7-11th, the 12 member Seward Jury found Issa only guilty of Disorderly Conduct for mutual fighting, and sentenced him to the maximum prison term of 10 days. Issa, who had already spent more than five months behind bars at the Wildwood Pre-Trial Facility in Kenai, was released soon after, said William Taylor, Issa’s Alaska Public Defender.

“It costs a fortune,” Taylor added after the trial. “It was way overcharged and shouldn’t have been brought,” he said. “I think the jury saw it for what really happened. It was a fight at a bunk house over a stolen phone. There was a lot of blood spilled, which made up the evidence, he added, but the greatest injury was just a cut to Nyok’s finger that needed no stitches.

Taylor, and court records help illustrate the extent of time and money involved of trials like these—not including the pre-trial investigations and preparations. Close to 70 Seward residents appeared for jury duty on Monday morning. So many in fact, that the potential jurors had to fetch additional chairs from around City Hall to bring into the courtroom.  Fifteen people were then randomly selected by lottery to be released from their duties as they couldn’t fit everyone in the room. Jury selection for the final 14, including two alternates, took all day and the next morning. Each person had to miss work, and arrange for their absence and for childcare.

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Alaska Superior Court Judge Anna Moran was called in to try the case, as it concerned felony charges, and had to be put up in town, as did the two attorneys and trial support staff. Two Somali translators were hired from the Lower 48, after a third translator, who lived in Anchorage, could not attend the trial due to the difficulty of obtaining childcare for her week in Seward. The translators from Outside appeared on a video screen, and occasionally the Anchorage translator was consulted by phone.

There were 10 witnesses, including two Alaska State Troopers and a Seward Police officer, and the majority had to be transported to Seward, and put up in local hotels until they were called to testify. Issa, the defendant, was brought to Seward and returned to the Kenai pre-trial facility twice, after new evidence surfaced during the trail required that he take the stand for a second time. In the end, Taylor said, the defendant was “needlessly imprisoned awaiting trial for more than five months, at an average cost to taxpayers of approximately $150 per day,” or about $22,500.

Meanwhile, the Alaska’s Public Defenders Office has suffered a shortage of staff, perhaps due to recent state budget cuts. The Kenai Office is down by two attorneys, who aren’t likely to be replaced, Taylor said. The office was without an investigator for a long period of time. It now has one, but has lost one of its two paralegals due to her promotion.

Craig Sparks, the District Attorney, could not be immediately reached for comment on the case.

The fact that both the defendant and his accuser were Muslim immigrants in America, and came from traditionally warring countries, was occasionally raised by the public defender, and Taylor asked the Seward jury to understand a little about why they might have not liked, or even feared one another.

The Seward trial was held just five days after the ISIS-related terror attack in San Bernardino, and in the wake of the November terrorist attacks in Paris. Two potential Seward jurors were initially dismissed from the jury pool after expressing anti-Muslim sentiments, even suggesting that they be sent back to their home country. The Resurrection Bay Seafoods manager also was dismissed as he knew both employees and the witnesses.

Both Issa and Nyok had lived in refugee camps prior to coming to the U.S. a decade earlier, Taylor said. Their home countries, Sudan and Somalia rank 1st and 2nd at the top of the global Fragile States Index. They have long histories of failed governments, famine, civil wars, insurgencies, and are known for employing children as soldiers.  The mass displacements have flooded refugee camps with tens of thousands. “Back home they would have been at war with each other,” Taylor added. Some of those bunking at Lowell Point had met one another in the refugee camps, or got to know each other in Anchorage or Seward. At the bunk houses they spoke together in English, which was their second or third language. Nyok, from the Dinka (Arabic) tribe in South Sudan, testified that he feared for his life when Issa, of Somalia threatened to kill him.

“He said I swear to G-d I’m going to kill you. I know it from camp in Africa. They like to fight with knives,” he testified under cross-examination, according to court notes. Asked to elaborate, he said: “We don’t get along: different country, different culture. I stay with them in a camp. Everybody was together in one place.”

During the June 28 altercation, which was nearly July 4th Independence Day, one worker accused the other of having fireworks, and threateningly pointing one toward him, calling it “a bazooka, RPG, a big weapon with a long-range missile.” After trying to tell him to stop he said: He fired the fireworks toward me.”  The man ran out the door, and went to shelter at the bunk house next door.

In the end, Taylor said he thought the Seward jury was able to set all that aside. Probably, they saw the altercation as typical rowdy, alcohol-infused seasonal employee bunk house behavior that occurs frequently.

Back when Taylor worked in Ohio and Pennsylvania, most cases that came up of a similar nature that came up  were screened out rather than ending up with a trial. But lately he seen trials like these being brought in Alaska more often. There have been at least three assault-related trails in Seward in recent months that he knows of, said the Kenai-based attorney: a felony-assault case in October in which the defendant was deemed too drunk to testify; and another assault trial under Seward Magistrate George Peck in November, in which a man who had assaulted a police officer was convicted on a lesser charge .