Washington State Supreme Court Reverses Darrold Stenson’s Aggravated Murder Conviction And Death Sentence

Posted: May 11, 2012 in death penalty litigation
Tags: , , , , ,

article by Frederick Leatherman, with a hat tip to Firedoglake/MyFDL Editor, who provided the image.

    Cross posted from Frederick Leatherman Law Blog.

    Washington State Supreme Court Reverses Darrold Stenson’s Aggravated Murder Conviction And Death Sentence

    Paris Death Penalty Protest. Photo by World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

    In 1994, I represented Darrold Stenson in a death penalty case. After a long and bitterly fought trial, the jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death for killing his wife and a former business partner.

    Both bodies were discovered in the home Mr. Stenson shared with his wife and their two young children.

    The prosecution’s theory of the case was that he killed his former partner to escape paying a substantial debt and he killed his wife to collect on her life insurance policy. The prosecution claimed that he lured his former business partner over to his home early one morning to discuss the debt, shot him to death after he arrived, and then shot and killed his wife staging the scene to look like a murder suicide.

    The Washington State Supreme Court today reversed Darrold Stenson’s Aggravated Murder Conviction And Death Sentence in an 8-1 opinion and remanded the case for a new trial based on the prosecution’s failure to provide me with exculpatory evidence. The Court specifically held that the prosecution withheld material exculpatory forensic evidence that prejudiced the defense denying him due process of law.

    The Court stated,

    Our conclusion that Stenson did suffer prejudice is shaped largely by the fact that only two pieces of forensic evidence formed the basis for Stenson’s conviction — GSR [gunshot residue] and blood spatter. Judge Williams [the trial judge who conducted a special remand hearing at the Supreme Court’s request — I spent two days testifying at the hearing] concluded after the first reference hearing that “[h]ad the ungloved handling and the turning out of the pockets [of Mr. Stenson’s pants by the lead detective in the case prior to trial] been known to the trial court and an appropriate objection made, the GSR testimony would have been excluded [at trial].” RHFC at 17-18. Both items of evidence were instrumental to the State’s case and, since the discovery of the FBI file and photographs, cumulative reliability of the forensic evidence in this case has been greatly undermined. Had the defense trial team been privy to the suppressed evidence at issue here, the integrity and quality of the State’s entire investigation, evidence handling procedures and case presentation would have been called into question.

    Stenson’s counsel aptly made this point in its brief addressing Judge Williams’s determinations:

    To rebut claims that the investigation was meticulous, impeccable, and highly professional, Stenson could point to the haphazard and cavalier way in which critical pieces of evidence were treated. He could show that the lead investigator was biased, or suffered from memory problems. He could show that at least one state’s expert (Peele) testified misleadingly, implying that he had personally conducted forensic tests when in fact they had been done by a trainee assistant. He could argue that the state had knowingly proffered worthless forensic evidence and then touted it in closing as highly probative of guilt. The mishandling of the pants would serve as a prime example of why the state’s evidence, witnesses, and arguments should all be viewed with extreme skepticism.

    Given the opportunity to impeach not only the useless GSR evidence but the state’s entire investigation, competent defense counsel would have been able to undermine confidence in the state’s case against Stenson. By the end of the trial, one of the key pieces of inculpatory evidence would have been completely neutralized, and the rest of the state’s case would have appeared much less solid.

    Pet’r’s Br. Addressing Reference Ct.’s Findings of Jan. 20, 2011, at 16-17 (footnotes omitted and citations omitted).

    In Kyles, the United States Supreme Court noted that, had the favorable evidence been disclosed to the jury, then the jury would have counted “the sloppiness of the investigation against the probative force of the State’s evidence. . . . [I]ndications of conscientious police work will enhance probative force and slovenly work will diminish it.” Kyles, 514 U.S. at 446 n.15. Had the FBI file and photographs been properly disclosed here, Stenson’s counsel would have been able to demonstrate to the jury that a key exhibit in the case — Stenson’s jeans — had been seriously mishandled and compromised by law enforcement investigators. It is also likely that exposure of the State’s mishandling of the jeans with regard to GSR testing would have led to further inquiry by Stenson’s counsel into possible corruption of the blood spatter evidence. In that regard, Stenson’s defense theory at trial could have taken into account the fact that the jeans may have been folded over when the blood spatter was wet. Instead, the jury was left with only one explanation for the blood spatter, which was that it could not have appeared on Stenson’s jeans after Frank came to his final resting place.

    We are left with the fact that constitutionally significant mistakes were made in Stenson’s trial, resulting in imposition of the ultimate punishment without the full benefit of due process protections. The question here is not whether Stenson has proved his innocence; that is not his burden under Brady. As the United States Supreme Court said in Kyles, “the question is not whether the State would have had a case to go to the jury if it had disclosed the favorable evidence, but whether we can be confident that the jury’s verdict would have been the same.” Kyles, 514 U.S. at 453. Under Kyles and its progeny, we are to consider whether one juror might have had reasonable doubt that Stenson was

    guilty or deserving of the death penalty if (1) the State had never introduced evidence that Stenson’s jeans pocket and hand had been in a “shooting environment,” Reference Hr’g Ex. 90, at 1779; (2) the defense team properly impeached the credibility of the detectives’ investigation techniques and showed the extent to which the law enforcement officers mishandled the evidence; and (3) the defense team had the benefit of the undisclosed evidence to create a persuasive defense theory of the case.

    Stenson, in our judgment, has met his burden of showing that there is a reasonable probability that, had the FBI file and photographs been disclosed to the defense, the result of his trial would have been different. Because we believe the newly discovered evidence undermines confidence in the jury verdict, we reverse Stenson’s convictions and death sentence and remand for a new trial.

    To read the full majority opinion, go here

    Go here to read the dissent.

    Special thanks to Darrold’s legal team at the Federal Public Defender in Seattle: attorneys Robert Gombiner and Sheryl Gordon McCloud and the best paralegal and defense investigator in the world, Jennifer Davis.

    Wow, do I ever feel good!

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