Eighteen years after Darold Stenson was condemned to death for killing his wife and business partner, the Washington Supreme Court has overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial.
Eighteen years after Darold Stenson was sentenced to die for the killings of his wife and business partner in Clallam County, the Washington Supreme Court has overturned his conviction and ordered a new trial.
In an 8-1 ruling, the court said Stenson’s rights were violated because prosecutors “wrongfully suppressed” favorable evidence. At the crux of the reversal was possibly tainted gunshot residue found on the jeans Stenson wore on the night in March 1993 when his wife, Denise, and business partner, Frank Hoerner, were killed at the Stensons’ exotic-bird farm, said his attorney Sheryl Gordon McCloud.
McCloud said she was “gratified” by the ruling, which was announced Thursday morning. She said she spoke with Stenson by phone.
“He was crying,” she said.
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In its ruling, the Supreme Court said two crucial pieces of evidence linked Stenson to the shootings — the gunshot residue on the front pocket of his jeans and blood spatter on the jeans. The spatter was found to be “consistent” with Hoerner’s blood, according to court filings.
McCloud said the defense argued that a Clallam County sheriff’s investigator handled the jeans after the slayings, possibly getting residue from his own handgun on them. When the defense discovered this possible evidence tainting, more than 15 years after the murders, they had what McCloud describes as an “Oh, my God moment.”
“We’re gratified that the court agrees that you cannot execute a man based on evidence this unreliable,” McCloud said.
Justice Pro Tem Gerry Alexander, who authored the majority decision, wrote that Stenson claimed his due-process rights were violated because evidence, consisting of photographs and an FBI investigative file, did not end up in the hands of the defense until 2009.
The justices were asked to review the photographs, which showed Detective Monty Martin wearing Stenson’s jeans with the right pocket turned out and showing Martin’s ungloved hands. They also reviewed an FBI file indicating an agent who testified during the trial actually did not perform a gunshot residue test, something that had been implied during Stenson’s 1994 trial.
Stenson had claimed that he knelt next to Hoerner’s body, accounting for the blood on the jeans.
But an expert witness called by the prosecution had testified that was not possible.
“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,” Alexander wrote.
Stenson argued that his due-process rights were violated under Brady v. Maryland, in which the U.S. Supreme Court determined that prosecutors violate a defendant’s constitutional rights by not turning over evidence that could prove a person’s innocence. The state Supreme Court on Thursday said that those rights were violated.
Speaking by phone Thursday morning, Clallam County Prosecutor Deborah Kelly said, “I don’t think anyone was prepared for this.”
Kelly defended the actions of investigators and said she’s “deeply disappointed in the decision to force a retrial.”
Kelly said it will be a few weeks before Stenson returns to Clallam County. She plans to prosecute him herself, again for murder. But, Kelly said, she is undecided on whether she will seek the death penalty.
Kelly said she will consult the victims’ families, try to track down the witnesses and put the case back together.
“It’s a very complicated decision. Does cost figure into the calculus? I don’t think it should, but certainly any prosecutor knows it will cost a great deal,” Kelly said. “To retry it is not as simple as people might think it is.”
Kelly added that staff from her office discussed the Supreme Court decision with relatives of the two victims who were “upset and disappointed.”
“It’s an utter tragedy for the victims’ families that this is the outcome,” she said.
Stenson, 59, was an exotic-bird dealer living near Sequim when he allegedly shot his wife at their home in what prosecutors called an effort to collect $800,000 in insurance. He allegedly shot and killed Hoerner to get out from a debt he owed the man, and to make it look like Hoerner killed Denise Stenson as part of a love-triangle murder-suicide.
Stenson’s three children were asleep nearby when the slayings occurred.
Stenson and Hoerner had been embroiled in a dispute over the cost of ostriches, which Stenson handled on his 5-acre Dakota Farms, prosecutors claimed.
Hoerner’s widow testified that Stenson persuaded the couple to invest their life savings of $48,000 in ostriches, but the big birds never materialized.
In his dissent, Justice James M. Johnson said the majority opinion failed to take into account the “totality of evidence” against Stenson and “exaggerates the potential prejudice of a late-discovered photo of Stenson’s pants.”
Denise Hoerner, the slain man’s wife, could not be reached Thursday, but she has been in support of Stenson’s execution.
“He needs to freaking die,” she said during a 2010 interview with the Peninsula Daily News.
Information from Seattle Times archives and The Associated Press is included in this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or email@example.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.