Will an Anchorage Superior Court Judge grant a convicted murderer a new trial? An Alaska appellate court recently issued an opinion requiring Judge Michael Wolverton to issue a ruling by May 6, 2021, on whether he, sitting as a metaphorical thirteenth juror, will reverse the jury’s verdict finding Korakanh Phornasavanh guilty of the first-degree murder of Said Beshirov outside of Platinum Jaxx more than eight years ago.
The history of the case is key to understanding this recent ruling. On October 28, 2012, Said Beshirov died laying in the streets of downtown Anchorage from gunshots wounds to his chest and head. The shooting took place at around 2:30 a.m., after the patrons of the now-defunct nightclub Platinum Jaxx poured onto the streets at bar break. The ensuing police investigation was hampered by the realities of intoxicated eyewitnesses and incomplete surveillance and cell-phone footage. Several eyewitnesses contradicted each other, the nightclub’s video cameras were positioned so that they did not capture the shooting, and cellphone footage taken by the patrons on the street was understandably less-than clear or complete. The court opinion linked below goes through this evidence in a detailed manner.
Following the police investigation, the State of Alaska charged Korakanh Phornasavanh with first and second-degree murder of Beshirov. Initially, Phornasavanh’s lawyers successfully moved for dismissal of the charges because the State had not introduced the eyewitness testimony of those who were outside Platinum Jaxx, and that evidence tended to exculpate Phornasavanh. However, the State successfully re-indicted him eight days later, by re-presenting the evidence to a grand jury, including the eyewitness testimony. The trial took place over a month during May and June of 2015. The jury found Phornasavanh guilty of first-degree murder.
After the trial, Phornasavanh’s counsel moved for a judgment of acquittal and motion for new trial, arguing that the State presented insufficient evidence for the jury to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Wolverton denied both motions. Phornasavanh appealed these and other rulings to the Court of Appeals for the State of Alaska.
On Friday, February 5, 2021, the Court of Appeals rejected most of Phornasavanh’s appeal. The Court of Appeals unanimously concluded that there was sufficient evidence such that a “rational trier of fact [juror] could find Phornasavanh guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and the superior court therefore did not err when it denied his motion for judgment of acquittal.”
But then the Court of Appeals did something surprising. It held that in determining Phornasavanh’s motion for new trial, Judge Wolverton had applied the wrong legal standard. And the correct legal standard appears to empower trial court judges in a way that is surprising: by making them a metaphorical thirteenth juror.
When a trial court rules on a motion for a new trial, it sits as a metaphorical “thirteenth juror,” independently weighing the evidence and evaluating for itself the credibility of the witnesses. However, mere disagreement with the jury’s verdict is not enough to invalidate a jury’s verdict. A trial court’s discretion to grant a new trial should be exercised “when necessary to prevent injustice,” but it is otherwise intended to be used “sparingly and with caution.” A jury verdict is not to be overturned lightly.
We’ll know by May 6, 2021 (the deadline set by the Court of Appeals) whether Judge Wolverton, sitting as a metaphorical thirteenth juror, concludes the weight of the evidence is contrary to the jury’s verdict that the evidence at trial showed beyond a reasonable doubt that Phornasavanh killed Beshirov. If Judge Wolverton concludes that the weight of the evidence is contrary to the jury’s guilty verdict, he will order a new trial.
Lee Baxter is a practicing Anchorage attorney. He provides periodic legal analysis for the Landmine in his spare time – when he is not fishing.
Full disclosure: Landmine Editor-in-Chief Jeff Landfield was a friend of Beshirov and was there the night he was murdered.