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Peel Acquitted In Eight Fishing Boat Killings In 1982

April 24, 1988

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) _ A young man has been acquitted of killing eight people after two trials in the state’s longest and most expensive criminal case, in which a prosecutor admitted the investigation was bungled.

John Kenneth Peel was acquitted Saturday of eight counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson in the deaths aboard the fishing boat Investor, which burned near the southeastern Alaska town of Craig in September 1982.

Peel’s first trial, which took six months, ended in a hung jury in Ketchikan in 1986.

In the second trial, which lasted three months, the defense rested without calling any witnesses and the jury deliberated for less than three full days.

″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. ″I didn’t put a case on because there was no need to dignify this case by putting on witnesses.″

Weidner said the family is considering a lawsuit to seek restitution. He declined to say who might be the target of such a suit.

Peel, 27, of Bellingham, Wash., had been in his parents’ custody on a $1 million property bond since his arrest in September 1984.

Peel, who once worked as a crew member on the Investor, was accused of killing skipper Mark Coulthurst of Blaine, Wash., his wife Irene, two Coulthurst children and four teen-age crew members.

Peel broke into tears after Saturday’s verdict and his family cheered. His family had been with him in Juneau throughout the three-month trial, with financial support from friends and family in Bellingham.

″It’s terrible being an innocent man accused of a crime,″ Peel said afterward. ″I just thank God it’s over. Justice did work this time.″

On the advice of his attorney, he did not answer any questions. He and his wife, Cathy, declined to comment on what they might do next.

″We’re going to have no place to go but up from here,″ Mrs. Peel said.

Peel’s brother-in-law, Jack Perram, said Peel can return to a job at his Bellingham boatyard.

″I’m sort of like a zombie,″ Peel’s mother, Marilyn, said Saturday. ″It’s been a long three days since the jury went out. I didn’t see how in the world they could come back with anything but a not guilty verdict.″

But 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.″

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 had been working on another fishing boat docked in Craig.

The state spent $2 million on the investigation and on Peel’s first trial, and budgeted $700,000 for the retrial.

Jury deliberations began Wednesday evening and the panel had its verdict Saturday afternoon. The jury forewomen said members of the panel agreed not to talk to reporters.

After Saturday’s verdict, Juneau Judge Walter Carpeneti lifted a gag order that had been placed on the deadlocked jurors in the first trial. Weidner said they had been deadlocked on votes of 9-3, 8-4 and 7-5 on the various counts, all in favor of acquittal.

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