ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) – The Ninth Circuit on Tuesday reversed murder and firearms convictions and granted a new trial to a former U.S. Coast Guard employee suspected of killing two fellow employees at a communication station on Kodiak Island, Alaska, in 2012.
A federal jury in 2014 deliberated just six hours before finding James Michael Wells, 63, guilty of two counts each of first-degree murder, murder of an officer or employee of the United States, and possession of a firearm in a crime of violence, in the death of co-workers James Hopkins and Richard Belisle.
“We are of the opinion that the government overstepped its bounds early in the pretrial process and continued overreach during the trial,” U.S. District Judge Donald E. Walter, sitting with the Ninth Circuit panel by designation from the Western District of Louisiana, wrote.
“The government’s actions, unchecked by the district court at critical points, so tipped the scales of justice as to render Wells’ trial fundamentally unfair. Therefore, we reverse and remand for a new trial.”
Attorney Davina T. Chen represented Wells at a hearing before the panel this past July. She challenged the trial judge’s removal of Wells’ second court-appointed attorney after the prosecution decided not to seek the death penalty, the admission of expert testimony from three witnesses and of character evidence, claiming prosecutorial misconduct when eliciting prejudicial testimony.
Wells also claimed the trial court also abused its discretion when precluding evidence of third-party culpability. He and Chen requested a new trial with a different judge.
While the panel disapproved of the government’s interference in the status of Wells’ representation, it held a magistrate judge’s removal of the Wells’ second court-appointed attorney did not constitute an abuse of discretion.
But the panel agreed the trial court made a mistake in allowing the government to use criminal profile testimony from a 2003 incident as substantive evidence of guilt, and said the error is reversible since it didn’t have enough to do with the case and didn’t speak to motive under federal regulations.
The panel rejected Wells’ contention that testimonial excerpts admitted by the trial court were improper character evidence, upheld the admission of remaining other-acts evidence and ruled the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing a forensic tire expert and a Honda expert to testify.
During the April 2014 trial, prosecutors characterized Wells as an employee who failed to follow regulations and guidelines going back more than a decade, disappeared for hours at a time from his post, and sabotaged trees at the Coast Guard station so he could cut them down later to use as firewood to heat his home.
At trial, FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Oberlander described Wells as a “disaffected, substandard Coast Guard civilian employee who frequently feuded with co-workers and supervisors,” according to court papers.
By 2011, a supervisor told Wells he needed to “shape up or retire,” according to trial testimony.
Prosecutors said a month after the reprimand, the same supervisor sent the victims to the National Association of Tower Erectors conference instead of Wells, who usually attended. Three months later, a colleague of all three men found Hopkins and Belisle’s bullet-riddled bodies at their duty station.
According to prosecutors, Wells left two phone messages on the morning of the murders saying he would be late due to a flat tire. They said Wells created the tire cover story as an alibi.
Unbeknownst to Wells, Coast Guard security video showed him in his white truck heading toward the airport prior to the killings. Prosecutors said he then switched to his wife’s vehicle, parked at the airport while she was off the island, and drove it to his and the victims’ duty station at the Rigger Shop.
Prosecutors believe he then committed the murders, switched vehicles again and returned to his home.
The victims’ wives sued the Coast Guard in federal court in 2016, claiming supervisors put their husbands in harm’s way by allowing a knowingly dangerous man to continue working at the communications station.
Kodiak Island, some 250 miles south of Anchorage, is home to the largest Coast Guard air station in the Pacific. The double homicide took place 3 miles away at the base’s communications station, where personnel monitor radio traffic from ships and planes.