Bizarre court hearing in sentencing of Austin Barrett for kidnapping that led to David Grunwald's death - Must Read Alaska
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Thursday, April 22, 2021
HomeThe 907Bizarre court hearing in sentencing of Austin Barrett for kidnapping that led to David Grunwald’s death

Bizarre court hearing in sentencing of Austin Barrett for kidnapping that led to David Grunwald’s death


Austin Barrett is now a sentenced kidnapper whose actions in 2016 led to the death of David Grunwald, the Palmer teen who was beaten and shot by a gang of four teenage boys who were on a violent wilding.

Barrett is the first of four to be sentenced, and the sentencing hearing turned bizarre today after the defense attorney got in front of the microphone and stammered his way through a theatrical presentation.

Four years after the murder of Grunwald, Barrett had earlier this year negotiated a plea bargain and was today sentenced by Palmer Judge John Heath to 64 years, with 20 suspended. He will be eligible for a parole hearing after 15 years.

Grunwald, son of Alaska Parole Board Chair Edie Grunwald and Ben Grunwald, was just 16 years old, when he had partied with a group in a camper on the evening of Nov. 13, 2016.

It was all a set up. Five youths had a plan and executed it in cold blood that November night when Grunwald was pistol-whipped in the behind Erick Almandinger’s Palmer house and then driven to a at Jim Creek on the Knik River where he was walked into the woods and shot dead.

Almandinger, Brad Renfro, Dominic Johnson, and Barrett were all arrested and ultimately convicted for the crimes.

In today’s sentencing hearing, the state prosecutor and defense attorney had come to a plea agreement to avoid a trial. The state’s attorney said that with COVID-19 delaying trials, it was better to get this plea agreement on the books, as the court system will be backed up for at least three years.

The Grunwalds both gave heartfelt testimony about how the killing of their son has impacted their life, and asked for the maximum sentence.

Defense attorney Craig Howard then gave a tense, rambling, long-winded, and self-referential defense of his client, at times blaming David Grunwald, the victim, for getting involved with a group of boys who had no moral compass.

“I’m saying this young man has a moral compass. Having said that, his moral compass was frozen for a couple of years,” Howard said.

Howard gave the “boys will be boys” defense, reminding the judge that as a teen, all he had to worry about was stealing his dad’s condoms, and that he couldn’t even buy a Playboy magazine, while today, teens are exposed to much darker elements on social media that their parents don’t know about. They were all bad kids, he said, but Austin Barrett is now remorseful and understands that he did something very bad. But it wasn’t pulling the trigger, the attorney argued.

“With murders, some homicides are one-time deal, they happen to normal, regular people. A person should be given a chance,” Howard said.

In a 45-minute presentation that sometimes seemed like he was melting down emotionally, Howard talked about how deeply this case had affected him. He said he had to throw away his slippers because they were the same brand that the 16-year-old victim wore.

With a trembling voice, incomplete sentences, and jerky motions, Howard referred to the novels, “Lord of the Flies,” and “The Oxbow Incident,” which he had re-read recently. The former book reminded him of the dystopian youth involved in the murder of Grunwald, and the latter book reminded him of how the pursuit of justice can go awry.

At another moment in his presentation, he described his own father as the original “Great Santini,” and recalled how much he had disappointed his father by not going into the military, and how he thought he dad had died prematurely because of that. He described having to resuscitate his own child once, and how hard it is to be a defense attorney. Many of his colleagues have succumbed to alcoholism, lost marriages and killed themselves, he said, because of the heavy burdens of the work they do.

“I can’t believe I’ve made it this far,” Howard said, describing the “psychic damage” he has suffered from being a defense attorney. “This picture of David Grunwald will live in my mind forever.”

Howard said, at one point, that he also went to Sunday school as a kid, and that he prefers the New Testament to the Old Testament. Later on, he said he doesn’t have the religious faith the Grunwald’s have.

“Sometimes I get it, and then I lose it,” he said.

He also refuted Edie Grunwald’s statement, saying she said he, Howard, was in “cahoots” with the defendant, “and that I am complicit in the lies. I don’t see how she can say that. She’s not omniscient. Only God is.”

Howard, who has represented a number of defendants in horrific murders in Alaska, including then-23-year-old Kirby Anthoney, who committed triple murder and rape of two children in 1987. Howard  talked about a friend of his from high school who ended up being shot in Vietnam, causing Howard to wonder what his death meant.

But this case obviously got to Howard. He was a hot mess, even while coming to the defense of his young client.

“I’ve read hundreds of statements of victims and I tell you, it’s usually just black and white. Colonel Grunwald’s statement — I could not read it. I kept having to put it down. The pain just oozed through it. The grief,” he said.

But later Howard said that the Grunwalds’ statements into the court record were designed to influence the parole board in 15 years, and how he wants his own remarks to also be recorded and provided to the parole board.

He made a point of noting that Edie Grunwald is the chair of the parole board and inferred that her current position may influence future proceedings.

“The Grunwalds are victims. But the elephant in the room here is she is also the chairman of the State Parole Board,” Howard said.

After he had exhausted the courtroom, Howard ended his statement by saying he hoped the Grunwalds would permit him to visit the gravesite of their son.

“I need closure in theis case. I’m not ready for closure. If The Grunwalds don’t want me to go to his grave, I understand. I would like to know, it would go a long way for me because … I’m emotional, I would like to go to his grave and get some closure. It’s my one request,” Howard said.

Barrett, now 20, read his apology to the court. The Grunwalds had left the room for that portion of the proceedings. They didn’t want to hear it.

Then, the judge accepted the plea agreement, Barrett was fingerprinted, and led from the courtroom.

The question of who pulled the trigger has still not been resolved, as all four of the youth declared they were not the culprit. But Barrett’s case was considered the most difficult to prosecute because he did not engage in social media or texting after the murder, and the others did, leaving a damning trail behind them.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Should have gotten life at hard labor, no parole possible.

  • Keep in mind, attorneys like Craig Howard are the ones who reccomend judges to the governor…

    • Good point.

  • All I can say is “what a weirdo”. I’m actually speechless.

  • Wow……….my heart still aches for the Grunwalds. I read this article and the attorneys ramblings…it feels very unprofessional. And saying everyone needs a chance?? I am a believer in this except in cases like this. David didn’t get a chance at all. Let those boys burn in hell.

  • Stick a needle in them. It doesn’t matter who pulled the trigger guilty by association. They picked on an innocent boy and did the devil’s work. This was nothing less than pure evil. People like this should never be let out on parole as they have no place in society. Yes the court system is backed up I know this to be true. In Florida courts are just now getting going again state attorneys have been working online prosecuting cases. It makes for a much harder job. Defense attorneys know if they file a continuance or reject a plea bargain agreement likely they may get a lesser sentence based on the timing. Mostly this was all smoke and mirrors today and a theatrical performance by the defense attorney. When all else fails blame the victim.

    • Pathetic, self indulgent defense attorney. This case wasn’t about that idiot and his theatrical BS needs a hell of a lot more polish before he whips it out in front of God and everyone. It’s back to craigslist and DUI defenses for you, Howie… and don’t forget to actually prepare final remarks next time.

      What was his worst comment? How about “It’s my one request”. It’s not about you, doof; it’s about the client. Your client’s life is on the line and you’re babbling about your lost shoes.

      • I think this DA had already started hitting the bottle.

  • I can tell you exactly what the attorney was doing….he was setting the scene so that his client could later claim faulty counsel and ask for the sentence to be set aside and a new trial. It’s so obvious.

    • Exactly

    • Karen, the sentence was the result of a plea bargain approved by the judge. There will be no claim of ineffective counsel.
      As for Craig Howard, getting a deal where his client will be eligible for parole in 15 years shows that he was quite effective.,That is one heck of a deal for a person found guilty of murder.
      The issue of whether the victims will have influence on the parole board is likely. . Victims are always given the right to weigh in during parole hearings. It is unlikely that Grunwald will still be on the Board fifteen years from now. But make no mistake, he will be remembered by whomever is on the board at the time. A lot of things are taken into consideration at parole board hearings. Prison over crowding, rehabilitation of the inmate, risk to the public, inmates behavior while incarcerated, etc. will all be considered.

  • If I was to write a comment, it would probably have something to do with the idiot, clueless defense attorney, who has probably given Barrett cause for a retrial due to lack of competent representation. This whole affair has been a farce from the beginning, and my heartfelt sympathies go to the Grunwalds.

    • Barrett did not go to trial. He entered into plea bargain, which would include waiving his right to any appeal. Had he gone to trial, he would very likely been found guilty of first-degree murder, just life Renfro was.

  • What the heck? It was all about him? Very disappointed in the sentencing, should have been a longer period in jail before a chance at parole. Edie and Ben, you remain in my prayers, that justice will out in the end.

  • I haven’t met this defense attorney, so I hesitate to judge the veracity of his statement of emotional involvement… but it sure looks like crocodile tears attempting to manipulate a future parole board. The defendants are guilty, and they deserve the most severe punishment allowable by law – not just to satisfy the law, not just to try to ease some of the Grunwald’s grief – but to set an example to other violence-prone youth that society just will not tolerate that kind of behavior. Yeah, they were kids on drugs who should have known better, and otherwise might have not acted out like that – the point is they did, and NO excuse is adequate. They ruined their own lives, not just David Grunwald’s. Are they too dangerous to ever release on parole? Likely – they will just learn to be more careful and efficient criminals while in prison. And even if they satisfy the prison’s counselors that they could be safely released, it would not serve justice to do so. I believe this is a case for capital punishment.

    • Agree.

  • From this account I conclude that the defense attorney is a self-centered nut-case. From newspaper accounts at the time I was convinced that these youths were completely worthless, unlikely to attend good colleges or to become good hands at any trade. (Might even flunk out of the University of Alaska if that is even possible.) They would never have even been able to pass a drug test in order to be hired. Had their parents known at the youths’ births they could not do any better at raising sons than this it might have better all the way round had they had abortions and settled up with God later. Now look at the expense it will cost all of us to keep these people in prison for decades, and at best when they get out they will end their sorry lives on the dole. Better for all should they run into bullets.

  • The famous, “Blame the victim” defense. She dressed too seductively, shouldn’t have been out after dark, etc.

  • If Howard is too emotionally fragile for his chosen line of work, then maybe he should consider changing careers.
    Something safer than dealing with criminal lowlifes, like sorting and stocking yarn at a fabric store might be a better fit for him and his fragile psyche….

  • The closing comments of this defense attorney cemented one thing in my mind….
    Bring the death penalty to Alaska…..
    Firing squad!

    • He will probably get off earlier that 15 for “good behavior”. Some how this lax process has to change. People like this should be sent to the desert camps for life.

  • For those who have had to interact with this despicable person/defense attorney in real life, this is just SOP.
    Additionally, judges in the state should be elected not appointed by a corrupt cabal.

    • Yeah, we elected a corrupt president in Biden. Your theory is flawed.

      • No, we did not elect him there’s plenty of evidence for voter fraud on several levels.
        Are you satisfied with the way judges are selected in this state? Do tell. Maybe you have an idea for improvement.

        • Put cheating aside, he was elected. Let the governor select the judges with term limits.

  • well, henry, People today are losing what’s left from their moral compass because of the dehumanizing and demeaning of masks and social distancing away from their fellow humans. Just as communisms affect on its populace, Americans will not be the same when the government will tell them the mask mandate is over, they will be conditioned not look into each other’s faces as people are doing to against one another with the mask on. If only American people went and learned the histories from fallen nations after communism, they will see as plain as day our own American nation has been providing conditioners thru Safety and Welfare conditioning the populace to one day be fully compliant under a Communist America, They will rip the masks off their faces, They will shop and travel, See and Speak closely to anyone around them, Open the businesses, and live their life free as it was intended by earlier founding fathers.
    I don’t want Communism, But my generation is going to make me live thru it because of their lacking of education and experience, and lacking courage to not comply with tranny.

  • What an astoundingly stupid defense. I’m sorry Grunwalds for all you have endured. Something needs to be done about the way judges are selected.

  • How long he stays in prison depends on how well he learns “the system”. Some have an Einstein level of being able to play “the system”.

    Part of it is to find God, to become a humanitarian, a model prisoner and show remorse to an extreme level.

    About finding God in prison, I can’t say people don’t. But God should show you what you feel grief, remorse whatever pales in comparison to the pain you caused victims friend and family to feel. It should be noted that “game players” tend to lose God after their out.

  • I’m sorry to bring this up but I think their is one more person we have forgotten about or am I the only one that thinks the young man can’t remember his name that got David up to Eric’s house that night. I’ve always thought that it was strange how he had to get up there and then just left or am I getting that story wrong ?

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