Clallam judge closes courtroom to discuss retrial legal team's fees

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — Preparations continued Wednesday for Darold R. Stenson's double-murder retrial as Clallam County Superior Court Judge S. Brooke Taylor closed the courtroom to the public and the press to discuss fees of Stenson's legal team.

The rare courtroom closure followed a two-hour hearing during which Taylor and lawyers for the county and Stenson finalized logistics and jury instructions for Stenson's transfer — on an undisclosed date — to Kitsap County for his retrial on aggravated murder charges.

Jury selection at the Kitsap County Courthouse, 614 Division St., Port Orchard, will begin Sept. 16 and is expected to last up to three days.

The trial is scheduled for Sept. 23 and is expected to last up to five weeks, with proceedings slated Monday through Thursday each week.

Stenson, 60, has pleaded not guilty in connection with the March 1993 shooting deaths of Stenson's wife, Denise, and business partner, Frank Hoerner, at Stenson's Sequim-area exotic-bird farm.

The state Supreme Court overturned Stenson's 1994 conviction in May 2012.

Motion filed

County Prosecutor Deb Kelly filed a motion that will be heard by Taylor at 2 p.m. Sept. 10 to request that statements made about Hoerner's wife, Denise, not be allowed into evidence.

Kelly said Stenson's defense team has filed court documents saying the attorneys consider Hoerner's wife an alternate suspect.

Stenson's lawyers have said in court papers she should have received more scrutiny from investigators.

Taylor decided to hold a closed-court hearing to discuss Stenson's lawyers' expert-witness fees.

“This is information that is shared with the court that is not appropriately or properly known to the prosecution or the public,” Taylor said, adding that the communication is necessary and “always done confidentially.”

It usually is not brought up in open court but is dealt with in written correspondence between attorneys and the judge.

Port Orchard lawyer Roger Hunko, the team's spokesman, would not elaborate on the amount that was at issue or the need for the hearing.

After the expense is submitted, the “financial side” of the case is a matter of public record and available “through public channels,” Taylor said.

“There is no hiding involved in terms of what anyone is being paid for anything, whether it's attorneys or experts,” he said.

Reporter objects

Taylor asked if any representatives of the press who were present objected to closing the courtroom, and a Peninsula Daily News reporter said he objected.

Taylor, first elected in 2007, said he could not recall barring the public from watching proceedings.

“In this particular case, considering the magnitude of the issues involved, the number of experts involved and the number of attorneys involved and the proximity to the trial date, it is essential to have this conversation with defense counsel,” Taylor said.

The written record of Taylor's exchange with Stenson's lawyers will be sealed “like all other financial documents that are exchanged between defense counsel and the court are sealed,” Taylor said.

In addition, county personnel who are present at the hearing will be sworn to secrecy, Taylor said.

The county has put $1 million in reserve to cover the cost of all murder trials this year, earmarking $50,000 of that to Superior Court's indigent defense budget, county Administrator Jim Jones said.

“They asked for $50,000 more and indicated more is coming,” Jones said.

Taylor and a court reporter will be traveling to Port Orchard for the trial and staying there three nights a week, Superior Court Administrator Lindy Clevenger said.

Juror questionnaire

Taylor, Kelly and Stenson's lawyers also agreed on a six-page questionnaire for potential jurors that Hunko said he has used for past trials.

Taylor said he will prepare a “hardship questionnaire” for potential jurors who assert they cannot devote six weeks to a trial.

“We need to screen those right up front,” Taylor said.

Valid hardship reasons include being self-employed, having a critical medical appointment, working in a job that does not reimburse workers for jury duty, being a teacher who would miss the first month of school and what Taylor called “the classic” hardship — if a person has purchased prepaid, non-refundable tickets for a trip or event.

Taylor estimated valid hardship cases will comprise a third to half of all those called to potentially serve as jurors, eliminating them from the pool.

Alison Sonntag, Kitsap County chief deputy clerk, said that due to the Stenson trial, at least 100 more potential jurors than usual were notified of jury duty for the Sept. 9-13 workweek.

Kitsap County Superior Court Administrator Frank Maiocco said the county has two to three high-profile murder trials a year.

“We're going to handle this trial like any other trial, with the expectation that there will be more interest,” Maiocco said.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: August 28. 2013 5:10PM
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