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Derek D. Sawyer v. State of Alaska

January 7, 2011


Trial Court No. 3GL-06-025 CR Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Glennallen, John Suddock, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bolger, Judge.


The text of this opinion can be corrected before the opinion is published in the Pacific Reporter. Readers are encouraged to bring typographical or other formal errors to the attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts. 303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska 99501 Fax: (907) 264-0878 E-mail: corrections at


Before: Coats, Chief Judge, and Mannheimer and Bolger, Judges.

Derek D. Sawyer was convicted of murder for killing his wife, Gretchen Sawyer. Sawyer's defense at trial was that Gretchen either committed suicide, or that their twenty-nine-month-old son, Trace, shot her accidentally.

Sawyer raises numerous claims of error. We conclude that Superior Court Judge John Suddock did not abuse his discretion when he declined to order the State to disclose investigations of other young children firing guns or when he declined to impose sanctions on the State for their failure to preserve paper bags that the investigating trooper used to package evidence taken from the crime scene. We conclude that evidence that Sawyer was a good parent was not admissible to show that he was not a murderer. We conclude that even if Sawyer did not waive his right to be present when the judge questioned and dismissed an errant juror, Sawyer does not establish that his absence caused any recognizable prejudice. And we conclude that another trial juror did not commit a serious violation of his duties when he neglected to mention that his former girlfriend had been killed in a drunk driving incident.


Gretchen and Derek Sawyer married in 1994 and moved from Arkansas to Glennallen, Alaska, after the birth of their son, Trace. Gretchen returned to Arkansas for a visit in February of 1996, and during that visit she reunited with her former high school boyfriend, Cody Bruce. Gretchen became pregnant, and Sawyer suspected that Bruce was the father. The couple's relationship deteriorated as Sawyer continued to question the baby's paternity while Gretchen maintained that it was his baby.

On July 13, 1997, Gretchen was shot once in the face with a Colt .357 Magnum revolver as she lay in her bed around midnight. Sawyer called 911 after the shooting, and Alaska State Trooper Mark Ridling responded to the scene.

Sawyer reported that he and Gretchen had gone to bed around 10:00 that evening, but that he got up to shower around midnight. Sawyer told Trooper Ridling that he ran from the bathroom after he heard a gunshot and that his son, Trace, was sitting on the floor of the bedroom next to a revolver. Sawyer told the officer that the revolver belonged to his father, and that Sawyer had placed the loaded gun on the kitchen table next to a stack of rental videos, all of which he intended to return the next day. Trooper Ridling seized some evidence from the bedroom, including the gun and the bloody pillows from the bed.

The day after Gretchen's death, members of the community contacted Trooper Ridling to ask if they could clean the Sawyers' house, and Ridling agreed, believing that he could not secure the crime scene without a warrant.

Gretchen's killing went uncharged until Sawyer was indicted in 2006 on one count of first-degree murder.*fn1 At trial, Sawyer contended that Gretchen must have committed suicide, or that twenty-nine-month-old Trace accidentally shot and killed his mother. The State presented evidence that Trace was not physically able to pull the trigger on the gun due to the size and strength of his hands. Sawyer was convicted after trial and he now appeals.


Sawyer's Motion to Compel

Sawyer filed a motion to compel, asking the judge to order the State to produce the results of Alaska State Troopers investigations into incidents reported in the Anchorage Daily News where young children fired weapons, resulting in injury or death. The motion referred to three specific investigations "as well as any other instances of young children firing guns known to the State." The State opposed the motion to compel, arguing that the case files Sawyer requested were irrelevant. The State argued that the issue in Sawyer's case was not whether any child was capable of firing any gun, but whether Trace was capable of firing the handgun used in this case. Judge John Suddock denied the motion in a written order finding that Sawyer's discovery request was unduly burdensome to the police authorities and would constitute "an extraordinary waste of time and resources." Judge Suddock noted that the request was "hopelessly overbroad," and remarked that the defense had available to it "far superior avenues ...

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