By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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By Rachel La Corte
The Associated Press
OLYMPIA — The state Supreme Court on Thursday reversed the conviction and death sentence of a Sequim-area man accused of killing his wife and business partner and called for a new trial in his double-murder case.
In an 8-1 ruling, the state high court said Darold Stenson’s rights were violated because the state “wrongfully suppressed” photographs that raised questions about mishandling of evidence as well as an FBI file that wasn’t provided to the defense until 2009, years after Stenson was convicted.
Stenson, now 59, was sentenced to death in 1994 for the 1993 slaying of his wife, Denise, and a business partner, Frank Hoerner, at Stenson’s exotic-bird farm near Sequim.
Sheryl McCloud, an attorney for Stenson, said she was pleased the court so overwhelmingly sided with their position.
“I was just so gratified that the court was willing to make a decision that might be unpopular but is really necessary given what we discovered almost 20 years after the conviction about the evidence being so unreliable,” McCloud said.
The high court noted that other than two key pieces of evidence that tied Stenson to the shootings, the remainder of evidence provided at trial was “largely circumstantial.”
Those two pieces of evidence — gunshot residue found inside the front pocket of the jeans Stenson was wearing when officers arrived, and blood spatter on the front of those jeans “consistent with Hoerner’s blood protein profile” — were at the heart of Stenson’s most recent appeal to the high court.
At issue were photographs showing Sheriff’s Detective Monty Martin wearing Stenson’s jeans with the right pocket turned out and Martin’s ungloved hands, and an FBI file indicating an agent who testified did not perform a gunshot residue test, which the court said was implied at the trial.
Stenson had claimed he kneeled next to Hoerner’s body, accounting for the blood on the jeans.
But an expert witness called by the prosecution had testified that was not possible.
“Had the FBI file and photographs been properly disclosed here, Stenson’s counsel would have been able to demonstrate to the jury that a key exhibit in the case — Stenson’s jeans — had been seriously mishandled and compromised by law enforcement investigators,” wrote the majority for the high court, led by Justice Pro Tem Gerry Alexander.
Stenson has long claimed he didn’t commit the murders.
When Stenson called authorities in 1993 to report the deaths, he suggested that his business partner, Frank Hoerner, had killed Denise Stenson and then shot himself in another room.
Prosecutors have said Stenson, struggling financially and in dire business straits, shot the two in order to collect $400,000 in life insurance.
Stenson has filed multiple appeals to his death sentence, and courts have stayed his execution three times, most recently in 2008 when he was less than two weeks from a scheduled execution.
In January 2011, a Clallam County Superior Court judge ruled that the prosecuting attorney did not meet its legal obligation to provide the evidence to the defense but also found it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the trial, something the high court disagreed with in its ruling Thursday.
The high court noted that it already had once affirmed both of Stenson’s convictions and the death sentence in 1997, and has since rejected four prior personal restraint positions filed by Stenson.
But the current petition cited due-process violations of the so-called Brady rights.
Those rights are named after the Supreme Court’s Brady v. Maryland case, which says prosecutors violate a defendant’s constitutional rights by not turning over evidence that could prove a person’s innocence.
The high court Thursday said those rights were violated.
“We are left with the fact that constitutionally significant mistakes were made in Stenson’s trial, resulting in imposition of the ultimate punishment without the full benefit of due process protections,” the majority opinion read.
Alexander was joined on the majority in Thursday’s ruling by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen; Justices Charles Johnson, Debra Stephens, Tom Chambers, Charles Wiggins and Mary Fairhurst; and Justice Pro Tem Teresa Kulik.
Justice Susan Owens, who was on the Clallam County bench as a Forks District Court judge during the 1994 trial, did not participate in the ruling.
Justice Jim Johnson, the lone dissenter, argued that the Supreme Court has “reviewed and affirmed both guilt and sentence over the intervening 18 years” since Stenson was sentenced.
“The interests of finality in justice to provide peace for the families of Stenson’s victims argue for the same result,” he wrote.
With Stenson’s death sentence now overturned, seven men remain on death row at the state penitentiary.
Washington state’s last execution was in September 2010, when Cal Coburn Brown died by lethal injection for the 1991 murder of a Seattle-area woman.
He was the first Washington inmate executed since 2001, after spending nearly 17 years on death row.
Since 1904, 78 men have been put to death in Washington.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Denise Hoerner, 45, said in a telephone interview.
“I was shocked. I feel like I just relived everything. I’m not having a very good time right now.”
Stenson, 59, owned an exotic-bird farm near Sequim when he was convicted in 1994 for the shooting deaths of his wife, also named Denise, and Hoerner, his business partner.
Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly said Thursday in a statement that she was “deeply disappointed” by the state Supreme Court’s decision.
“It is an utter tragedy for the victims’ families that they are forced to relive this,” she said.
Kelly said in an interview that she will not seek review from the state Supreme Court because the decision was 8-1 but will consult with appellate attorneys to determine if she will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the ruling.
Kelly has 30 days from the issuance of the ruling to file an appeal.
That means that the earliest Stenson, who had filed numerous appeals before Thursday’s ruling, could return to Clallam County from the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla would be after June 10 for a retrial on two aggravated-murder charges.
A county Superior Court status hearing would be held the day after Stenson’s return to Clallam Count and an arraignment held the following week, Kelly said.
Kelly said that if Stenson returns for a retrial, she would refile the murder charges against Stenson but would ask family members of the murder victims whether she should again seek the death penalty.
“I’m going to have to sit with family members to obtain their input and discuss with them what their wishes are,” Kelly added.
If Kelly seeks the death penalty, the presiding Superior Court judge would be required to appoint a special attorney qualified to try death penalty cases to represent Stenson, Kelly said.
Denise Hoerner told the Peninsula Daily News on March 25, 2010 — the 17th anniversary of her husband’s death — that she could not handle a new trial and that Stenson’s execution would allow her to move on with her life.
On Thursday, she said she wants Stenson to be tried again for the murders of her husband and Stenson’s wife.
Stenson “doesn’t scare me,” Denise Hoerner said.
“My husband was a wonderful man,” she added.
“God will make it right.”
In overturning Stenson’s convictions, the court cited the withholding of evidence from the defense by the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Kelly was an appointed District Court judge in 1994, when Stenson was tried.
The evidence the court cited consisted of FBI lab notes and photographs of then-county Sheriff’s Detective Monty Martin wearing the same bloody jeans worn by Stenson the day Stenson’s wife and Frank Hoerner were murdered.
Kelly said Martin wore the pants at the request of a Prosecuting Attorney’s Office expert witness who never testified at the trial.
Stenson had claimed he kneeled by the victims.
The expert witness “was having [Stenson] move in ways to see if the blood on the pants could be created by the movements that Stenson described,” Kelly said.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.