Clallam judge orders DNA test on bullet in case involving death row inmate

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

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PORT ANGELES -- State Patrol Crime Lab DNA tests on a bullet could lead to a new murder trial for Darold Stensen, a convicted double-murderer now living on death row at Walla Walla State Penitentiary.

But those tests also could seal his fate.

Clallam County Superior Court Judge Ken Williams ordered the DNA review at a hearing Thursday at the request of Stenson's court-appointed lawyer, Sheryl Gordon McCloud of Seattle.

"This is the last piece of evidence the court will allow to be tested," Williams said.

The DNA test will be conducted on a hollow-point bullet that was in the chamber of a .357-caliber revolver used in the murders.

McCloud said the bullet may have been hand-loaded and that DNA may be contained in an untouched and thus uncontaminated part of the primer, a propellant that combusts when struck by a firing pin.

A Clallam County jury Aug. 11, 1994, convicted Stenson, 57, of shooting his wife, Denise Stenson, 28, and business partner, Frank Hoerner, 33, March 25, 1993 at Dakota Farms, Stenson's exotic bird farm near Sequim.

Both were shot in the head and their bodies found in different rooms of Stenson's house.

According to a doctor's testimony at Stenson's trail, Hoerner was beaten first with a blunt object that left injuries consistent with being struck with a nunchaku, a baton-like martial arts weapon.

Stenson, a former martial arts instructor, had several of the weapons at his house, though none were linked to the murders.

In May, Williams stayed Stenson's execution until Aug. 25 to allow 15 pieces of evidence to be DNA-tested.

Those tests failed to prove anyone other than Stenson killed his wife and Hoerner.

Then in July, the state Supreme Court issued an indefinite stay over possible evidence contamination that could lead to a new trial, though that evidence does not include the bullet focused on at Thursday's hearing.

The bullet was chambered in the gun that was in Hoerner's hand when his body was found in the guest bedroom of Stenson's home.

"If we get evidence the actual killer was not Mr. Stenson, we would seek a new trial," McCloud said.

If DNA is discovered and it belongs to Stenson, "that might be a problem for Mr. Stenson," she also conceded.

"We knew that all along."

But county Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly argued that the amount of DNA on another chambered bullet that had already been tested was so low that no conclusions could be drawn from the results.

"Even if, contrary to all reasonable expectations, the DNA of some unknown person is found," she told Williams, "there is nothing to suggest whoever loaded those bullets was involved in the murder or even present at the time of the murders."

McCloud said she and Robert Gombiner of the Federal Public Defender's Office in Seattle did not realize until recently that the second bullet existed because of how it was labeled as evidence.

The state Supreme Court stayed Stenson's execution on a 9-0 vote over possible evidence contamination of a pair of blood-stained jeans worn by Stenson the day of the murders and later worn by the lead investigator at the request of a blood-spatter expert.

The Supreme Court has not set a hearing date for potential arguments on the stay nor issued a timetable for a ruling on a new trial, McCloud said.

"This is pretty complicated stuff, so it might take them awhile."

For now, Stenson is with six other death row inmates whose days consist of 23 hours of lock-down seven days a week, state Department Corrections spokeswoman Maria Peterson said Thursday.

If Stenson's death penalty stands, he can choose lethal injection or death by hanging, she said.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 16. 2010 11:42PM
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