The trial for a man accused of a 2018 stabbing death in Yakutat has began in Juneau Superior Court at Dimond Courthouse. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire file)

The trial for a man accused of a 2018 stabbing death in Yakutat has began in Juneau Superior Court at Dimond Courthouse. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire file)

Jury selection begins in Yakutat killing trial

Potential jurors expressed qualms about COVID mitigation measures in place.

Juror selection began Tuesday in the trial of a man charged in the stabbing death of a man in Yakutat in 2018.

John L. Stapleton, originally from Washington, was arraigned in 2018 for charges of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder following the death of John Fergerson Jr., 51.

Stapleton was indicted on Nov. 25, 2018. Now, Juneau Superior Court Judge Amy Mead is presiding over the case, expected she said to take several weeks to run through.

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“This trial is anticipated to be a rather long trial,” Mead said during her opening remarks to potential jurors.

Eric Hedland of the Public Defender Agency is defending Stapleton, while Juneau District Attorney Angie Kemp, recently selected to lead the Alaska Department of Law’s Criminal Division, leads the prosecution.

A number of potential jurors expressed qualms with the COVID-19 mitigation measures, with some claiming that they believed the state would expose them unduly to the virus that causes COVID-19 or expressing concerns about other jurors’ vaccination status.

Jury selection is part of a trial designed to eliminate jurors from the pool that might have undue bias in the case, due to a relation to people involved in the case, such as the victim or the defendant, or for other reasons that would render them less than impartial. The burden of proof is on the prosecution, who will have to prove to the jury beyond reasonable doubt that Stapleton is guilty.

The Empire previously reported that Yakutat Borough Police Department received a call from a woman in the early morning on Sunday, Oct. 14, 2018 from the cabins where Stapleton and Fergerson were staying that a man was not breathing. After arriving at the scene, said YBPD Chief Robert Beasley, told the Empire in 2018, officers found Stapleton attempting to give CPR to Fergerson, who they found dead with three stab wounds near the heart. Stapleton was put in custody, and Fergerson was pronounced dead at the scene. Alcohol was likely a factor in the incident, Beasley told the Empire.

At the time of the killing, it was the first killing in Yakutat in more than 20 years, following the 1996 murder of Sandra Perry by Robert Kowalski. Kowalski was convicted and sentenced in 2014; Kowalski appealed the conviction but it was upheld in 2018.

The opening statements are expected to begin Wednesday afternoon.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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