Defendant Reuben Yerkes (l.) sits by public defender Jude Pate in Sitka Superior Court in May. Pate has since taken another position in the appellate unit of the Public Defender Agency. Sitka’s new assistant public defender Nathan Lockwood is now representing Yerkes.
(KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The murder trial of Reuben Yerkes remains scheduled for this January in Sitka — for now.

During a status hearing held Thursday afternoon (10-12-17) in Sitka Superior Court, Yerkes’ defense attorney suggested that it would make more sense to wait a year, until October 2018.

The court, however, wanted the proceedings to move on schedule, if possible — for the sake of the victim’s family.

Downloadable audio.

The state is collecting a large amount of evidence to prosecute 39-year old Reuben Yerkes: blood, fluid, and tissue samples; firearms ballistics; latent fingerprints; and texts and emails.

Yerkes’ defense wants time to independently examine it all. Sitka assistant public defender Nathan Lockwood doesn’t think there’s any chance the defense team will be ready by this January. He proposed pushing back the trial by a year, to October 2018.

“That’s based on how long it’s going to take us to get the evidence, the expectation that there will be substantial motion work in this case, and then additional time to notice up experts. So we think that’s a realistic trial date, and we know it’s a ways out, Your Honor, but we’d like to set a date that is realistic and won’t have to be moved.”

Among the motions the defense is expected to file is a change of venue. Yerkes is accused of killing his girlfriend, 28-year old Ali Clayton, in her home early in the morning of May 6. He turned himself in to Sitka police shortly afterwards. The case has prompted high emotion in Clayton’s social circle; all previous hearings have been packed with her family and friends.

Judge David George was concerned about further delays.

“I have a family here that’s concerned about what’s going on. It’s very stressful for them. Sometimes things have to be continued, but I don’t want to have people showing up and every time we’re continuing a trial. We set this trial in January hoping that we’d set it out far enough so that wouldn’t happen.”

The major delay stems from the City of Sitka’s motion for privilege over some of the emails on computers used by the defendant and victim. Yerkes worked as a paralegal in Sitka’s Legal Department at the time of his arrest. Clayton had formerly worked in the city’s Finance Department. The computers used by the two were seized as part of the Sitka Police Department’s investigation, and sent to the state’s Technical Crimes Unit.

The City of Sitka has intervened to prevent the release of what it considers privileged information that might be contained on the two computers. It has asked the same legal firm handling litigation around the 2015 landslide to comb through the 600 emails written by Clayton, and the 2,000 emails written by Yerkes, and prepare a so-called “privilege log” — and identify content unrelated to this case, which might be detrimental other legal matters the city is involved in.

Assistant district attorney Amanda Brown told the court that it could take 3-4 weeks to prepare a privilege log for each computer.

Rather than push back the trial until next October, Judge George proposed holding another status hearing — with the city’s privilege counsel present. “Sometimes appearing in front of a judge can give someone a little extra impetus to get things done,” he said.

The date was set for 3 p.m. Wednesday, November 1 in Sitka Superior Court.