Death row inmate's chance for a retrial may hinge on a photograph of his pants
In this photograph taken in 1994, Clallam County Sheriff's Detective Sergeant Monty Martin wears jeans said to have been worn by Darold Stenson the day of the murder of his wife and business partner. Stenson's lawyers are arguing that Martin might have contaminated the evidence used in Stenson's conviction.
By Tom Callis
Peninsula Daily News
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For the attorneys representing convicted double-murderer Darold Stenson of Sequim, who is fighting a death sentence, the gravity of one photograph taken in 1994 can be summarized in just one word: retrial.
The picture, which shows the lead investigator in the 1993 murders wearing Stenson's bloodstained jeans, points to possible evidence contamination, the attorneys argue.
But the man shown in the photo, Staff Sgt. Monty Martin of the Clallam County Sheriff's Office, testified Wednesday that he believes the pants were untainted despite his wearing them.
"At that time and at this time I don't feel that I contaminated those pants," said Martin during the hearing in Clallam County Superior Court.
Martin, then a detective sergeant, wore the jeans at the request of a contracted forensic examiner to see whether the blood could have gotten on them from Stenson kneeling by the victims.
Stenson, 57, was convicted in 1994 of murdering his wife and business partner on his Dungeness Valley exotic bird farm.
He was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection in December 2008 at the state prison in Walla Walla. Separate stays of execution -- one in Clallam County and one in U.S. District Court -- were granted in late November 2008.
In testimony in the Callam County courtroom Monday, Stenson said he did not fire the gun that killed Denise Stenson and Frank Hoerner.
Photo focus of hearing
The photograph is of significance, say Stenson's lawyers, Robert Gombiner and Sheryl McCloud of Seattle -- and is the focus of a hearing to determine whether Stenson should get a new trial -- because it shows the jeans' front right pocket turned inside out and Martin not wearing gloves.
The pants were sent to the FBI within a week after Martin wore them.
A gun-shot residue test done then showed four microscopic particles, of the type emitted when a gun is discharged, in the same pocket seen exposed in the photo.
Stenson's attorneys are arguing that the picture sheds enough doubt on whether the gunshot residue came from Stenson to justify a new trial.
Martin told the Peninsula Daily News that he thinks he didn't contaminate the jeans because he wasn't wearing clothes that he had worn when shooting his gun and didn't have a firearm with him.
He testified that the FBI test had yet to be ordered when he donned the jeans. The examiner had turned the pocket inside out to visually inspect it for gunshot residue.
Stenson's lawyers questioned Martin's standards for handling evidence.
Martin said that it was standard practice for law enforcement 16 years ago to wear gloves for the purpose of protection rather than preventing contamination of evidence.
"Today this would be done for contamination prevention; back then it was for personal protection," he said.
But Martin still said he was a "bit shocked" to see that he wasn't wearing gloves in the picture when he viewed it recently.
Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict, who was in the courtroom during some of Martin's testimony, told the PDN that the staff sergeant didn't violate any standard practices for law enforcement in 1994.
"I personally feel that Sgt. Martin's testimony was credible. It was technically accurate for the training he had at the time, and for best practices at the time that went down," he said.
To get a new trial, Stenson's lawyers have to prove that the prosecution did not provide the defense with documents, like the photo, that would shed doubt on the FBI test results.
Not aware of photo
The Clallam County prosecuting attorney at the time of the murders, David Bruneau, testified Tuesday that he was aware of the pants incident before the trial, but he said he didn't know of a photo documenting it.
The hearing, now past its sixth day, is expected to finish today. It was recently expected to come to an end Tuesday, and before that, by last Friday.
Both the state -- represented by Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly and Special Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Pam Loginsky -- and Stenson's lawyers have placed blame for the slow pace on each other.
Judge Ken Williams said he will request an extension of his deadline for submitting his recommendation to the state Supreme Court on whether Stenson should get a new trial.
His decision is due March 30. The judge hopes to extend the deadline to April 5.
Stenson also is requesting through the state Supreme Court that pieces of evidence from the investigation be sampled for DNA, and is challenging the state's lethal injection policy in U.S. District Court.
Reporter Tom Callis can be reached at 360-417-3532 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: March 17. 2010 11:32PM