2013 DV assault case overturned on appeal

Aug 12, 2016

KDLG: Alaska’s Court of Appeals has overturned the verdict in a domestic violence case tried in Dillingham in 2013.

That October, a jury of six found Josh Savo, now 28, of Dillingham guilty of fourth degree assault and interfering with the report of a domestic violence related crime. The state Public Defender Agency appealed the ruling, saying Savo’s attorney had been barred from mentioning a self-defense argument during jury selection or during the opening statement at the trial.  

Presiding Judge Pat Douglass had ruled that it would have been improper for the jurors to hear anything about self-defense until later in the trial, after the defense had introduced evidence to support the claim. The Court of Appeals called that ruling a “significant error,” and the prosecutor’s motion asking for it “frivolous.”

The justices said there is a rule that bars an attorney from making a self-defense claim at the end of a trial, if no evidence has been presented prior to that. But in the Savo case, the public defense attorney had filed his intention to argue self-defense before the trial began.

The Court of Appeals ruling said the self-defense issues should’ve been decided by the jury, not just the judge. After the jury convicted Savo, Judge Douglass sentenced him to four months in jail. The convictions have now been overturned.

Key paragraph from Court of Appeals ruling:

"The judge’s ruling was a significant error. It prevented the defense attorney from questioning the prospective jurors regarding self-defense — while at the same time giving the prosecutor free reign to question the jurors about the State’s theory of the case. In addition, by requiring the defense attorney to avoid mentioning self-defense in his opening statement, the judge’s ruling made it falsely appear as though the defense attorney had come up with the idea of self-defense at the last moment, during the trial itself. We therefore reverse Savo’s convictions."

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.