Shrubs grow outside of the Kenai Courthouse on Monday, July 3, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Shrubs grow outside of the Kenai Courthouse on Monday, July 3, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Seward man acquitted in 2019 double-homicide case

The man was accused of shooting and killing 28-year-old Dustin Marx and 40-year-old Michael White inside of their van

A Seward man walked free last week after a Kenai jury determined that he was not guilty in a 2019 double homicide.

Joseph Chandler Jr., 35, faced two charges of first-degree murder and four charges of second-degree murder stemming from an altercation on his Nash Road property that left two people dead. Chandler has been in state custody since 2019 and participated in three trial attempts before last Monday’s verdict.

Chandler was originally arrested on two first-degree murder charges after reporting to law enforcement that he had shot and killed 28-year-old Dustin Marx and 40-year-old Michael White inside of their van. Alaska State Trooper John King wrote in an affidavit submitted with charging documents that Chandler told him that the shooting occurred after a conversation between himself, Marx and White “became heated.”

“During the interview (Chandler) told me, in essence, he was aware that White and Marx were not supposed to be on the property, and when he saw White’s van arrive, he went outside to tell him to leave,” King wrote. “He spoke with them for between 10 and 20 minutes, during which time the conversation became heated and Marx called (Chandler) names, made verbal threats and ‘gestures’ with his hands in his pockets.”

Chandler’s trial was initially to be held in Seward. Chandler’s public defender, Nathan Lockwood, said Thursday, though, that they were unable to assemble in Seward a jury of people who didn’t know things about the case or who didn’t know the parties involved. As a result, the trial was moved to Kenai and the process started over.

The first Kenai trial culminated in a hung jury. Kenai Superior Court Judge Jason Gist in March declared a mistrial in Chandler’s case after determining that there was “no probability” that the jury would reach a unanimous verdict in the case, court documents show. The mistrial declaration meant that they’d have to start the process over yet again.

Chandler’s second trial began on Nov. 6 and concluded on Dec. 11, when a Kenai jury found Chandler not guilty on all counts.

Lockwood said that, across both trials, the defense argument largely stayed the same — that Chandler had acted in self-defense.

Alaska Statute, he said, says a defendant is justified in using deadly force as a method of self-defense when they believe that such force is necessary against imminent robbery, death, serious physical injury, kidnapping, first- and second-degree sexual assault or first-degree sexual abuse of a minor.

Lockwood said he didn’t realize how rare a full acquittal is until after the trial had concluded. He’s handled other serious cases, such as those involving sexual assault or sexual abuse of a minor, but said receiving the jury’s verdict in Chandler’s case was the most intense.

“It was the most intense verdict I’ve taken in my career,” he said.

After the verdict was returned, Lockwood said Chandler reacted first with shock, then with tears before embracing him. Chandler’s parents, who Lockwood said have been present for both trials, were also emotional.

“It was really moving,” he said.

When asked whether he and Chandler had ever considered accepting a plea agreement, Lockwood said there were never any agreements offered that didn’t require Chandler to plead guilty to murder. Chandler, Lockwood said, “believes in the system.”

“He wasn’t willing to take a deal for something he feels he didn’t do,” Lockwood said.

Chandler, through Lockwood, said Thursday that he maintains that he reasonably believed Marx and White were trying to hurt or steal from him, but that he wishes things had worked out differently. Chandler, Lockwood said, said he feels horrible that both men are dead and about the way things shook out.

Per Lockwood, Chandler also said that he knows he can never give the victims’ families their sons back. He said he hopes the families can forgive him one day, but also understands that they might not. Now, Chandler said he is going to try and live a good life, which he said he owes both to the two victims and to both juries.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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