by Mark Wilson
On October 28, 2022, the Alaska Supreme Court held that a prisoner is required to challenge a discretionary parole decision in a post-conviction relief (PCR) action, rather than a civil suit. Though a loss for Donald McDonald, the case is instructive – and not just in proper procedure the prisoner should follow, since the Court also said the lower court should have converted the lawsuit into a PCR action instead of demanding that the prisoner file a new case.
McDonald was convicted of the 1986 murder of a friend’s wife, while the couple was going through a divorce and dispute over custody of their two children. The first jury to hear the case convicted him of Laura Henderson’s kidnapping but hung on the charge that he murdered her. A second jury then convicted McDonald of the killing, and he was sentenced to a 99-year prison term.
He became eligible to apply for discretionary parole after 33 years. But the state Parole Board denied McDonald’s application in November 2018. Though he had done well in over three decades in prison, he committed “the most serious crime someone can commit, taking another life,” the Board said; his release at the time ‘‘would diminish the seriousness of the offense” and “negatively impact the victims.” The Board told McDonald to reapply in 10 years. It then denied McDonald’s request for reconsideration in April 2019, finding that he did not present any new or additional information that would have changed the decision.
More than one year later, after the PCR filing deadline, McDonald filed suit pro se in state court in August 2020, alleging that the Board committed non-feasance, malfeasance or obstruction of process in denying his application. He sought an injunction to vacate the Board’s decision and order it to reconsider.
The Board moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, asserting that PCR, not a lawsuit, was McDonald’s proper remedy. The superior court then adopted the Board’s reasoning and dismissed the suit.
The Alaska Supreme Court also agreed that “McDonald was required to bring his claim against the Board in a post-conviction relief application.” However, citing Larson v. State Dept. of Corr., 284 P.3d 1 (Alaska 2012), the Court said the lower court “should have converted the matter to a post-conviction relief application without dismissing the lawsuit, rather than effectively requiring McDonald to file a new and separate court case.”
Yet the Court did not reverse the lower court’s decision on this basis. First, McDonald did not raise the issue. But also “it seems incontrovertible that McDonald filed his direct civil action well after the time had expired to file a [PCR] application,” the Court said. Thus, the dismissal was affirmed. See: McDonald v. State, 519 P.3d 345 (Alaska 2022).
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