ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A former Ketchikan assistant district attorney made so many improper points in his closing arguments that it undermined the fundamental fairness of the trial, the Alaska Court of Appeals ruled Friday when reversing a second-degree murder conviction.
The court ruled in the case of Devin Rossiter, who was convicted in the stabbing death of Nick Stachelrodt in Ketchikan.
Stachelrodt, 45, had confronted Rossiter, then 18, on March 12, 2011, as the younger man rifled a car belonging to Stachelrodt’s father outside a home they shared.
Rossiter had been drinking and had knocked on doors asking people for cigarettes, including the door of Stachelrodt’s elderly father. Nick Stachelrodt and Rossiter struggled, and Stachelrodt was stabbed twice. Rossiter claimed self-defense.
In his closing statements, then-Ketchikan assistant district attorney James Scott used a PowerPoint presentation with one slide that read, “Nick Stachelrodt did not deserve to die.” The next slide for the jury said the only way they could find Rossiter not guilty was by disagreeing with the last slide and believing “Nick Stachelrodt deserved what he got.”
According to the ruling, Scott continued to hammer the point during a closing statement that lasted one hour and 41 minutes.
“What was the offensive thing that Nick Stachelrodt did,” Scott asked, according to the ruling. “Because believe me, if you convict Mr. Rossiter of anything other than murder in the second degree, or (if you) acquit Mr. Rossiter, send him home, then you have to conclude that Nick Stachelrodt did something horrible to deserve what happened to him.”
The defense appealed, successfully arguing the slides and statements mischaracterized the law of self-defense and shifted the burden of proof to the defense, presuming Rossiter was guilty unless they agreed Stachelrodt “deserved what he got,” the opinion says.
The court ruled that self-defense “does not hinge on whether the deceased ‘deserved to die.'” But Scott repeated told the jury that Rossiter’s claim of self-defense would only be valid if Stachelrodt deserved to die.
The court said the error was so obvious that the trial judge was required to intervene. It did not say if that happened, but Rossiter was convicted of second-degree murder and evidence tampering.
“The closing argument was really egregious, and I hope it tells people on both sides of the aisle to watch what you say in closing statements because it’s really unfair,” said Marjorie Mock, an Anchorage-based attorney with the public defender’s agency, which represented Rossiter.
Cori Mills, a spokeswoman for the Alaska attorney general’s office, said her office doesn’t intend to petition the Alaska Supreme Court. She said it was evaluating its ability to re-try the case based on the availability of witnesses and other factors.
Scott, who later became the district attorney in Juneau before retiring in June, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The court also found that Scott also erred by suggesting that Rossiter’s claim of self-defense was a sham invented by his defense lawyers in hopes the jury would look at the victim in a bad light. “This is not permitted,” the opinion says.
In a one paragraph concurring opinion, Judge Marjorie Allard said the closing arguments “constituted a gross distortion of the law.”