Members of the prosecution and defense, including defendant John Stapleton, sit on Jan. 13 during a trial for a 2018 killing. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)

Members of the prosecution and defense, including defendant John Stapleton, sit on Jan. 13 during a trial for a 2018 killing. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire File)

Jury returns mixed verdict in Yakutat killing trial

Accused found guilty of multiple charges, not guilty of first-degree murder.

A jury on Friday found a man accused of a killing in 2018 guilty of manslaughter and second-degree murder, and not guilty of first-degree murder.

The verdict came after three days of deliberation following a trial several weeks ago.

John Stapleton, 50, was arrested in Yakutat on Oct. 14, 2018, in Yakutat after emergency services received a call about a man not breathing. John Fergerson, 61, was lying on the floor without a pulse and not breathing when police officers from the Yakutat Borough Police Department arrived on the scene.

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Officers attempting to resuscitate Fergerson found three stab wounds in his chest when they removed his shirt to defibrillate him. Stapleton and Tracy Sitherwood, who came up to Yakutat with Stapleton and Fergerson on a fishing trip, were taken into custody. Sitherwood was later released from custody.

The investigation of the crime scene turned up a kitchen knife concealed by Fergerson’s body. Attempts by the prosecution, led by District Attorney Angie Kemp, to link the stabbing to a cut on the meat of Stapleton’s hand through testimony by investigators and expert witnesses were inconclusive.

The cause of death was identified as a stab wound to the pericardium, a sac around the heart, said the medical examiner who autopsied Fergerson.

“There were only two people in the room when the event took place,” said Superior Court Judge Amy Mead, who presided over the case, to the lawyers following the verdict. “There was a lot of circumstantial evidence.”

The most significant piece of evidence was the three stab wounds to the chest, which were clean, distinct, and absent defensive wounds, said Mead, citing the state medical examiner who testified during the trial.

Under Alaska statue, a defendant convicted of second-degree murder is to be sentenced to imprisonment for a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of 99. The charge of manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment.

Sentencing in the case is scheduled for May 27.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or

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