Alaska town pays legal bills to defend caribou hunters

The North Slope Borough has ponied up $56,000 to pay for the legal defense of the eight men accused of wasting the meat of dozens of caribou shot near Point Hope last summer, all of whom appear poised to fight the charges in a court battle to be waged on their home turf, according to documents filed in court.

The unusual move of a local government paying for defense lawyers in a criminal trial was authorized by the office of North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta in response to a request from the Native village of Point Hope, court records indicate.

In a letter to the village filed in court, the borough says it is putting up the money and raises the possibility more could be sent if needed. Village executive director Lily Tuzroyluke in turn sent the defendants a letter advising they each had $7,000 to orchestrate their defenses and urged them to retain private attorneys, who she said would have more time to handle their cases.

Itta said in an interview Tuesday he was not personally aware of the letter from his office, which bears the signature of an acting mayor, but that he agreed with its contents.

"I do know that I wanted to support them in any way that we could," Itta said. "My purpose is to defend our people in whatever wrong may be applied to them."

The move marks an escalation in what has become a clash of cultures between the state and the Arctic hunters involved in the case. The state argues subsistence users have to follow the same laws everyone else does, while the defendants, their lawyers and, now, regional leaders counter that traditional subsistence hunts should not be hampered.

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