By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
Want more top stories? Sign up here for daily or weekly newsletters with our top news.
The jury was left with “overwhelming” evidence to convict Darold “D. J.” Stenson, according to Clallam County’s top prosecutor.
Stenson’s lead attorney countered that the case “reeks of reasonable doubt.”
Stenson, 60, is charged a second time with first-degree premeditated murder in the shooting deaths of his wife, Denise Stenson, and business partner, Frank Hoerner, at Stenson’s exotic-bird farm near Sequim.
His 1994 conviction was overturned by the state Supreme Court in May 2012.
The high court remanded the case back to Clallam County for a new trial.
Last April, Clallam County Superior Court Judge S. Brooke Taylor granted a defense motion for a modified change of venue because of publicity surrounding the case over the past 20 years.
Defense attorney Roger Hunko of Port Orchard and Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly gave closing arguments Wednesday, focusing on forensic evidence, demeanor evidence and motive.
“I think closing arguments are particularly important in light of the amount of evidence in this case,” Taylor said.
Jury deliberations began at about 11 a.m. Thursday after Kelly gave a rebuttal argument.
Deliberations will resume Monday.
Hunko said the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Stenson committed the murders.
But Kelly said Stenson had “every motive in the world to make this look like a murder-suicide.”
“He has a grievance with Frank because Frank’s pressing him for money that he doesn’t have, or birds which he doesn’t have the money to get,” Kelly said.
“He is in need of money, and his wife has $530,000 worth of insurance on her life if you add up all of the policies.”
She added: “Frank is the perfect fall guy.”
Hunko played a recording of the 9-1-1 call that Stenson placed from his wife’s bedside at about 4 a.m. March 25, 1993.
“Frank just shot my wife and himself,” Stenson told the dispatcher:
Later in the call, he could be heard shouting, “Please, hurry! Hurry!” and, “What’s taking so long?”
Denise Stenson was found alive in her bedroom with a gunshot wound to her head. She died later that day.
“If Mr. Stenson was as cold-blooded as the state would have you believe, he would have put another cap in her,” Hunko told the jurors.
“He would have killed her before he called 9-1-1.
“If he did it, she’s a witness.”
Hoerner was found shot to death in the downstairs guest room.
Kelly said Stenson had motive because of mounting financial pressures.
He was “toying with the notion of bankruptcy” and being pressured to purchase the Kane Lane farm where he ran his business and lived rent-free with his wife and three children.
Witnesses testified that Stenson convinced Hoerner and others to pay him for ostriches that were never delivered.
On the night before the shootings, Stenson told Hoerner to come to the farm to sign insurance applications for ostriches he planned to purchase in Texas.
Hoerner’s wife, Denise Hoerner, testified last month that her husband made arrangements to sign the paper early the next morning on his way to work.
Frank Hoerner, who caught an early ferry every morning to work as a carpet layer in the Seattle area, left his residence at about 3:30 a.m. and arrived at the Stenson residence about five minutes later.
Investigators alleged that Stenson shot his wife and then attacked Hoerner with a martial arts weapon, dragged him into the guest room and shot him in an effort to portray a murder-suicide.
“I don’t think anybody could ever really know what happened at the Stenson residence on March 25, 1993,” Hunko said.
“The state’s evidence is all jumbled up.”
Hunko, who was critical of the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office investigation and the state’s handling of the evidence, cast Denise Hoerner as a possible alternate suspect.
“She had motive, and she and Frank weren’t getting along,” Hunko said.
“[The investigators] thought they had Mr. Stenson, and they weren’t looking any further.”
Hunko displayed a 1993 photograph of former Sheriff’s Sgt. Monty Martin wearing Stenson’s blood-spattered jeans with a front pocket turned inside-out.
The blood samples were cut out and destroyed after being tested at an FBI lab.
The state Supreme Court overturned Stenson’s original conviction on the grounds that his rights were violated because the state wrongfully suppressed evidence, including photographs of the jeans.
“This was a very, very serious crime,” Hunko said.
“We know that Denise Stenson was killed by somebody. The question is by whom. I don’t think we’re any closer to that than when we started here on the 16th of September.”
Based on his interpretation of the evidence, Hunko said Denise Hoerner or someone else may have committed the murders. He noted that the state had the burden of proof to show that Stenson was the killer.
“There is not enough evidence to find Mr. Stenson guilty of these crimes,” Hunko said.
Kelly said Stenson was “distracted” and changed his story in follow-up interviews with sheriff’s detectives.
“The bottom line is that anybody who is cold-blooded enough to kill their spouse and a friend while children are sleeping mere feet away is cold-blooded enough to fake a particular demeanor,” Kelly said.
Kelly said it was “not plausible” that Denise Hoerner killed her husband or Denise Stenson because of the timing of the events.
“It makes no sense,” she said.
“She’s got to worry about encountering the defendant if she’s planning to visit to seize this opportunity and kill Frank that morning. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever of any animosity towards Denise Stenson. In fact, she regarded her as a best friend.”
Kelly said Darold Stenson had “every opportunity” to plant bullets that were found in Frank Hoerner’s driveway, van and the front pocket of his jeans.
“The only way this makes sense is if the defendant committed these crimes,” Kelly said.
“The physical evidence points to him. It points to him strongly.”
Stenson spent 14 years on death row and was eight days away from being executed by lethal injection when a judge issued a stay of execution in November 2008.
If reconvicted, Stenson would face life imprisonment without parole.
He is being held without bail in the Kitsap County jail.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.