By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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Clallam County Superior Court Judge S. Brooke Taylor last week granted a motion to change the trial venue because of “substantial” publicity surrounding the 20-year-old case and “recent inflammatory pronouncements by popular and credible public officials” such as county Sheriff Bill Benedict.
“The court is satisfied that there is not only a probability, but a high probability, that the defendant cannot get a fair trial in Clallam County,” Taylor wrote in a 13-page memorandum of opinion.
Stenson, 60, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder for the shooting deaths of his wife and business partner at his Sequim-area bird farm in March 1993.
The former death row inmate was granted a stay of execution in 2008, and his 1994 conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court last May.
Taylor described Benedict’s comments as “inappropriate,” while Benedict said he stands by them.
Taylor will preside over the case in Kitsap County unless the Superior Court there prefers other arrangements.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin July 8.
Lead defense attorney Roger Hunko of Port Orchard, Sherilyn Peterson of Seattle and Blake Kremer of University Place were appointed to Stenson’s counsel last summer, when the death penalty was still a possibility.
Clallam Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly took the death penalty off the table last December. She will continue to represent the state despite the change of venue.
Kelly said she was “disappointed” by Thursday’s ruling.
“It just makes the logistics more difficult,” Kelly said in a Friday telephone interview.
“The case will be the same whether it’s held here or in Kitsap County. It just logistically becomes much more difficult.”
Kelly said she was “not terribly surprised” by Taylor’s ruling but declined to elaborate.
“I think Judge Taylor put a lot of consideration into it and made the best judgment he could,” she said.
Clallam County will cover the travel expenses for Kelly and her witnesses, most of whom are local law enforcement officers.
Clallam County taxpayers also are paying for the defense, which had billed the county $224,818 in attorneys’ fees and $47,537 in expert services as of Friday, Superior Court Administrator Lindy Clevenger said.
Benedict estimated that the defense has “blown way past $300,000 already” when unbilled hours are taken into account.
“In the end, this process is going to cost us a lot of money,” he said.
County Administrator Jim Jones said he was notified Thursday that the Prosecutor’s Office would need an unspecified but “significant” amount of money to cover the cost of trying Stenson in Kitsap County.
“Now, we have to put up several people [in hotels],” Jones said.
“She [Kelly] is going to have to be there. It’s going to be quite a bit more expense.”
Jones said he told Kelly to work out the costs and submit a formal request for a budget emergency, which the three commissioners will consider approving.
“It’s probably going to be a fair amount,” Jones said.
Clallam County set up a $1 million special reserve in the 2013 budget to cover the expense of capital murder trials.
Even with the change of venue, the Stenson trial is not expected to exhaust the reserve.
“We have a path,” Jones said.
Benedict noted that Clallam County will be responsible for juror and facilities costs to hold the trial in a Kitsap County courtroom.
Peterson filed the motion for a change of venue in January, citing more than 150 articles that have appeared in the Peninsula Daily News and Sequim Gazette over the past 20 years, radio and television news stories, and a 1993 episode of “A Current Affair,” a then-nationally syndicated Fox television newsmagazine.
She filed a supplemental motion two weeks later based on a 2010 KOMO-TV interview with the widow of Frank Hoerner, one of Stenson’s alleged victims.
A second supplemental motion to move the trial to King County was filed after Benedict was interviewed by KONP radio and the PDN in February.
In his ruling, Taylor summarized Benedict’s public comments as follows:
■ Stenson is guilty, and everyone knows he is guilty.
■ Retired Judge Ken Williams, who presided over the first trial, has said Stenson is guilty.
■ The retrial is a ridiculous waste of time and resources.
■ The murders were premeditated and motivated by greed.
■ The cost of a second trial will have a severe financial impact on the citizens of Clallam County.
“Mr. Benedict is a popular, elected sheriff whose comments are likely to resonate with many citizens in Clallam County who have no inkling of how inappropriate it is for the county’s chief law enforcement officer to make such public statements just a few months before a jury trial on murder charges which his department investigated, and where his officers will be the state’s key witnesses,” Taylor wrote.
“He is not only popular and credible in this venue, but assumed to have inside information which gives his untimely pronouncements more clout than the opinions of others.”
When asked to comment on the change of venue, Benedict said: “I stand by what I said.
“The judge is operating under different constraints than I am.”
Benedict, who had not seen the ruling as of Friday, said his public remarks were taken “word for word” from the probable-cause statement in Stenson’s case file.
He added: “I’m not going to second-guess the judge.”
In his ruling, Taylor said he considered keeping the trial in Clallam County and selecting a jury from another county.
The judge concluded that the advantages of doing so would be outweighed by logistical challenges, the additional expense and the potential for media exposure “with the possibility of additional prejudicial comments by public officials.”
Stenson’s May 8 status hearing will take place as scheduled in Clallam County Superior Court.
The deadline for lawyers to file pretrial motions is May 17, with responses due May 31.
A pretrial motion hearing is set for June 12.
When asked to gauge the likelihood of a July trial, Kelly said: “All parties are certainly hopeful it goes out then.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.