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Benjamin Seeland

Other Alaska Cases
On September 29, 2013, 32-year-old Benjamin Seeland and his 32-year-old cousin, Francis Mendez were drinking at the Bayview Pub in Sitka, Alaska, when a fight erupted involving another patron, Matt Lowe, apparently over remarks Mendez exchanged with a female customer.

Mendez and Seeland both were charged with misdemeanor assault after Lowe said they attacked him and, kicked him and broke his foot.

Their cases were separated for trial and Seeland was scheduled to go to trial first. Prior the trial, the attorney for Mendez told Seeland’s defense lawyer that his investigator had interviewed one of the prosecution’s witnesses, Tom Thompson.

Thompson told the defense investigator a different story than he had originally told to police right after the incident. At the time, Thompson told police that Mendez and Seeland were the aggressors in the fight and that Lowe came to the defense of a female patron after Mendez insulted her. According to the police report, Thompson said Seeland and Mendez took Lowe down and Seeland restrained Lowe while Mendez punched and kicked Lowe.

But Thompson told the defense investigator that Lowe was watching Mendez making smart remarks to a woman and when Mendez walked away from her, Lowe chased Mendez and knocked him down with a punch.

According to the investigator, Thompson said Seeland then came to the defense of Mendez and kicked Lowe once. Mendez, according to Thompson, then hit Lowe several times in the head and finally was pulled off by Seeland.

Mendez’s lawyer informed Seeland’s lawyer, Carole Waters, of Thompson’s statements and learned that Waters had agreed with a prosecution request to allow Thompson, who lived in Indiana, to testify telephonically rather than be present in court and testify before the jury.

Seeland went to trial in Sitka Judicial District Superior Court on March 3, 2014. Christian Knapp testified that he was dropping a friend off near the tavern when he saw a scuffle. He told the jury he saw three people, but could not tell who was going after whom. He said it appeared that one person was beating a person on the ground and another person was trying to stop the fight. A video Knapp took with his cell phone showed Mendez hitting Lowe on the ground and Seeland watching.

Thompson testified over the telephone that Lowe, who was physically much larger than Mendez, chase Mendez through the parking lot across the street from the tavern. He said he heard someone say, “You don’t mess with my cousin,” and that Mendez and Seeland were punching and kicking Lowe. Thompson said he was intoxicated at the time and in his testimony repeatedly deferred to the police report.

Seeland’s attorney did not cross-examine Thompson about his statement to the investigator for Mendez that Seeland was defending Mendez and trying to stop the fight.

Another witness, Wyatt Patrick, testified that he told police that Lowe might have started the fight.

Lowe, the complainant, testified that he had been drinking heavily that night and did not remember what happened.

Seeland testified in his own defense and told the jury that he was leaving the tavern when he saw Lowe chasing Mendez. He said he crossed the street and yelled at Lowe to leave Mendez alone. Seeland said Lowe cursed at Seeland and said, “I will beat your ass, too.” Lowe then kicked Seeland in the head. Seeland said he grabbed Lowe’s legs and took him to the ground and then lost consciousness briefly.

He said when he came to, he saw Mendez kicking Lowe in the face. He said he grabbed Mendez by his hoodie and pulled him off Lowe.

Seeland’s attorney did not argue that Seeland was acting in self-defense or ask for a jury instruction on self-defense. Instead, she argued that there was mutual combat between Lowe and Seeland that stopped and that Mendez kept fighting and that Mendez was the primary aggressor.

On March 4, 2014, the jury convicted Seeland of misdemeanor assault and he was sentenced to 60 days in jail. Mendez went to trial immediately after. He was convicted and sentenced to 75 days in jail. Both men were ordered to pay restitution of $14,000 for Lowe’s medical bills.

Before Seeland surrendered to begin serving his sentence, his family retained new lawyers who filed a post-conviction petition seeking to vacate the conviction on the ground that Seeland’s attorney had provided a constitutionally inadequate defense by failing to cross-examine Thompson about his recantation and by failing to raise self-defense as a justification for Seeland’s actions.

The petition said that Seeland’s attorney had argued to the jury that Seeland did not hurt Lowe as much as Mendez did, a tactic that amounted “to an argument to the jury that Mr. Seeland was also guilty of hurting Mr. Lowe, just not as much. Arguing that one’s client is guilty is ineffective.”

The petition noted that the Judge David George—who presided over both trials—noted during sentencing of Mendez that he was “having second doubts about (Seeland’s) sentence.”

On April 8, 2015, Judge George granted the motion to vacate Seeland’s conviction, ruling that Waters had provided an inadequate legal defense. The prosecution then dismissed the charge.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/11/2015
State:Alaska
County:Sitka
Most Serious Crime:Assault
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2013
Convicted:2014
Exonerated:2015
Sentence:2 months
Race:Caucasian
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:32
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No