When lawyer Phil Weidner finally got his win in State of Alaska v. John Kenneth Peel, he also got the semi-biographic treatment from the Anchorage Daily News. As revered ADN journalist Sheila Toomey wrote, he had just won a not guilty vote on eight murder counts and one count of arson. He was a winner. And was treated as such.
Maybe somewhere in the history of American jurisprudence, some other defense attorney has gotten a client acquitted of eight counts of first-degree murder, but if so, the people who usually know these things haven’t heard of it.Sheila Toomey, Anchorage Daily News, May 1, 1988
Spoils For the Winner
The payoff was less than sweet. As a winner, Phillip Weidner faced the reality that his practice was in disarray, enforced in part by the three-year trial process and the need to plant his butt in Southeast Alaska. Inevitably, this was to the detriment of his Anchorage practice. The building he owned in Anchorage was where his practice used to be. The building itself had been foreclosed.
Beyond the obvious, the search for a reason wasn’t hard to find. Part of it was the pay cut he took after being underwritten by the State of Alaska public defender’s office. And…
Weidner described himself as a protector of the underdog. The Peel case was the perfect fit. As Toomey notes, “his personal belief in Peel’s innocence seems absolute.” If there was one other thing that Toomey identified, moreover, it was that Weidner is a genuine radical, his politics handed down through a heritage of Midwest populism and the anti-war politics of the 1960s and 1970s. It was, strangely enough, a good fit for Alaskans. Distrust of government is a watchword for both. And government overreach became an entire theme park in the Investor trial.
Phil Weidner was in his judicial comfort zone.
A Missive from Weidner
On the eve of publishing What Happened in Craig, I too experienced Philip Weidner’s absolute fealty to John Peel’s innocence.
He sent a note, with dire warnings if we didn’t present the case to his liking. Our alleged failure? We hadn’t deigned to talk to Weidner or his client before publishing the book. [Full disclosure: I called John Peel in 1994, while the manuscript was still in draft form. Peel politely declined to speak. Something about a pending lawsuit. That was the time to chat, not twenty-years later when memories have shifted and calcified into their most favorable form. But I digress.]
Our publishing team huddled. Spoke to our media attorney. And published the book as is (after, of course, corresponding with Mr. Weidner). Yet there is something that still bothers me. In the letter, Weidner wrote that his client was “fully exonerated and acquitted by a twelve person jury.” Acquitted? Yes, sort of. Exonerated?
There’s no place for that on the jury form. Actually, there’s no place for “acquitted” on the jury form either. There are only two choices. Guilty or Not Guilty. Judge Carpeneti, the trial judge who presided over John Peel’s second trial, had to remind Mr. Weidner of that. Had to remind him by way of saying Mr. Weidner couldn’t use “innocent” either.
My sense is the term “exonerated” came from the out-of-court settlement to John Peel’s lawsuit. But that document is, um, confidential. How perfect. Phil Weidner gets to say his client is exonerated, while simultaneously hiding behind the fact that that language, if it exists, lives in a confidential agreement. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
I’d love to hear more about this “exoneration” business. From the source. An explanation. A reference. Something. I’m not holding my breath.
Thoughts prompted by the Investor murders. The original manuscript, started in 1992 and based on court records from the Alaska State Archives, served as the basis for “What Happened in Craig.”
Copyright Leland E. Hale (2021). All rights reserved.