JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) _ A lawyer for a former crewman who was acquitted in the killings of eight people aboard a fishing boat said the man’s family may file suit because of the four-year ordeal that became the most expensive criminal case in Alaska history.
John Kenneth Peel was acquitted Saturday of eight counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson in the 1982 deaths aboard the Investor. He had been tried twice; the first trial resulted in a hung jury.
″It’s terrible being an innocent man accused of a crime,″ Peel said . ″I just thank God it’s over. Justice did work this time.″
Peel, a boatbuilder from Bellingham, Wash., who once crewed on the Investor, was accused of killing skipper Mark Coulthurst, his wife Irene, two Coulthurst children and four teen-age crew members. The Coulthursts were from Blaine, Wash., and three crew members were from the Blaine-Bellingham area.
The Investor was found burning near the southeastern Alaska town of Craig in September 1982, and Peel was not arrested until two years after the crime.
″From the moment it was issued, I have always said the indictment was not worth the paper it was written on,″ said defense attorney Phillip Weidner.
″The prosecutors put an innocent man and his family through this ordeal for four years,″ Weidner said, adding that the family is considering a lawsuit to seek restitution. But he declined to say who might be the target of such a suit.
On Saturday, Peel, 27, broke into tears and his family cheered when the jury announced its decision in Juneau Superior Court. His family had been with him throughout the three-month trial, with financial support from friends and family in Bellingham.
On the advice of his attorney, Peel did not answer any questions. He and his wife, Cathy, declined comment on what they might do next.
″We’re going to have no place to go but up from here,″ Mrs. Peel said.
Prosecutor Mary Anne Henry, who handled both trials, told jurors the state had bungled the Investor investigation, had no evidence of a motive and no physical evidence against Peel.
Nonetheless, she contended the prosecution could prove its case based on witnesses who said they saw Peel near the Investor around the time of the killings and in the fishing vessel’s skiff after the larger boat was found burning in a cove near Craig.
Peel was working on another fishing boat docked in Craig at the time.
Peel’s brother-in-law, Jack Perram, said Peel can return to a job at Perram’s Bellingham boatyard.
″I’m sort of like a zombie,″ said Peel’s mother, Marilyn Peel. ″It’s been a long three days since the jury went out.″
Relatives of the victims said they were disappointed.
″Somebody ought to pay,″ said Ted Smith, who was related to five of those slain. ″I don’t say it should have been Peel, but it should have been somebody.″
″I thought after being up there for a couple of weeks (watching the trial) that they would find him guilty, as they should have,″ said Ruth Moon, mother of slain crew member Dean Moon, who was at her home in Bellingham.
The state spent $2 million on the investigation and on Peel’s first trial, and budgeted $700,000 for the retrial. The defense rested its case the second time without calling any witnesses.
″I didn’t put a case on because there was no need to dignify this case by putting on witnesses,″ said Weidner.
Jury deliberations began Wednesday evening. The jury forewoman said members of the panel had agreed not to talk to reporters.
Peel had been in his parents’ custody on a $1 million property bond since his arrest in September 1984.