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Palmer man indicted for murder and drug trafficking could face death penalty

 U.S. Attorney District of Alaska / KTUU
U.S. Attorney District of Alaska / KTUU (KTUU)
Published: Mar. 23, 2017 at 11:09 AM AKDT
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A Palmer man could face life in prison or the death penalty on federal charges stemming from murder and drug trafficking.

On Thursday, representatives from the U.S. Attorney's Office, AST, ATF, DEA and FBI announced the indictment of John Pearl Smith II, 30, of Palmer.

Smith was indicted on federal murder charges and a string of armed home invasion robberies dating back to September 2015. According to the indictment, on three separate occasions, Smith attempted to rob people he believed were involved in drug trafficking.

"Smith was indicted early this week by a federal grand jury on three counts of interference of commerce by robbery, three counts of attempted possession of controlled substances with intent to distribute, and six counts of use of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence and drug trafficking crime resulting in murder," said Bryan Schroder, Acting U.S. Attorney, District of Alaska. "Smith was also charged with four counts of using a firearm during and in relation to violent crimes and drug trafficking crimes, and being a felon in possession of a firearm."

Federal prosecutors say in June 2016, Smith shot and killed Wasilla residents Ben Gross and Crystal Denardi, during an armed home invasion robbery. A third individual, who the indictment identifies as "R.B.," was also shot during the robbery.

In September 2015 and on May 11, 2016, Smith allegedly also attempted to rob others whom he believed were trafficking drugs.

If convicted, Smith faces life in prison or the federal death penalty, according to the U.S. Attorney District of Alaska.

"The connection between drugs and violence is inextricable," said Schroder. "And we have been directed by the attorney general to take aim at violent crime in our communities by working with our state and local partners."

Before this case goes to trial, the attorney general of the United States will decide whether to seek the death penalty. Schroder says in this case, the death penalty would be considered based on the link between violence, drugs and the interstate commerce connection of the robberies.

"The charges of use of a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime or drug trafficking crime, resulting in murder carry two possible sentences," Schroder said. "Life imprisonment and the federal death penalty."

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Alaska, as a state, has never had the death penalty. From 1900 to 1957, eight legal executions were carried out.

According to the DPIC website, in 1957, the Alaska Territorial Legislature abolished the death penalty saying "The death penalty is and shall hereafter be abolished as punishment in Alaska for the commission of any crime."

Before 1899, DPIC says miner's courts handled legal matters in Alaska. It's believed seven people were executed under that system.