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State high court reverses double-murder conviction
After appealing his double-murder conviction and fighting to avoid the death penalty for nearly two decades, former Sequim resident Darold Stenson got what he wanted.
The Washington State Supreme Court ruled 8-1 on May 10 to overturn Stenson’s 1994 murder convictions on the grounds the state “wrongfully suppressed” photographs that raised questions about evidence mishandling and an FBI file. It wasn’t until 2009 that Stenson’s defense attorneys received the photographs and file.
Stenson, 59, received the death sentence after a 1994 Clallam County trial in which he was convicted of murdering his wife, Denise, and business partner Frank Hoerner.
Clallam County Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly said she is deeply disappointed in the decision.
“In 30 days, a certificate of finality will issue and Stenson will be brought back to Clallam County for retrial on murder charges,” she said. “During that time I will be meeting and consulting with the victims’ families prior to making the determination on whether to re-seek the death penalty.”
Kelly said it is an “utter tragedy” the victims’ families will be forced to relive the event.
On March 25, 1993, Stenson called 9-1-1 at 4:02 a.m. reporting, “... Frank has just shot my wife, and himself, I think ...”
Hoerner, 33, who had invested $50,000 in Stenson’s exotic bird farm on Kane Lane, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in the Stensons’ spare bedroom. Denise Stenson, 29, was found bleeding with a gunshot wound to the head on the bed in the upstairs master bedroom and died the next day at a Seattle hospital. The Stensons’ three young children were asleep in the home when the murders took place, according to court documents.
Investigators found scuffling marks to the southwest of Hoerner’s van as well as blood spatters on the driveway and blood stains on both sides of a service door. An autopsy revealed that prior to death, Hoerner endured blunt instrument-type trauma to the back of the head. Gravel was found in his palms and pants and bruising was found on his knee, buttocks and hips, according to court documents.
Detectives believed Stenson attacked Hoerner, who escaped briefly before being shot, and set him up in the spare bedroom to stage his suicide. They also believed Stenson shot his wife while she was sleeping.
During the trial on the murder charges, the prosecutor’s theory of the case was that Stenson killed his wife to collect on her life insurance policy and then killed Hoerner to avoid repaying the $50,000 Hoerner gave him for the exotic bird farm and also to blame Hoerner for Denise Stenson’s murder.
Darold Stenson’s jeans were a key piece of evidence used to tie him to the shootings. The jeans had gunshot residue in one of the front pockets and Hoerner’s blood spatter.
“Stenson claimed that when he discovered Hoerner’s body he kneeled next to it, suggesting that this may have accounted for the blood spatter on his jeans,” Justice Pro Tem Gerry Alexander wrote in the majority opinion. “An expert witness called by the State testified at trial that some of the blood spatter on Stenson’s jeans could not have been deposited after Frank came to his final resting place on the floor.
The remainder of the evidence presented by the State at trial was largely circumstantial.”
Stenson was convicted on both counts and sentenced to death.
Stenson’s appellate counsel were notified in 2008 that an FBI special agent, Ernest Peele, who testified at Stenson’s trial, gave testimony that exceeded the scope of what the evidence could show about bullet lead analysis, Alexander wrote.
The information about the flawed testimony, though the bullet lead analysis evidence wasn’t a significant part of the prosecution, raised additional questions.
In 2009, the prosecutors responded and disclosed evidence not previously available to Stenson’s attorneys: photographs depicting Clallam County Sheriff’s Detective Monty Martin wearing Stenson’s jeans with the right pocket turned out and showing Martin’s ungloved hands; and an FBI file containing the gunshot residue test results, revealing a person named Kathy Lundy — not Peele as Peele’s testimony at trial implied — performed the tests at the FBI laboratory.
The question of whether or not the newly discovered evidence would have changed the jury’s outcome was sent to Clallam County Superior Court Judge Ken Williams. In a Jan. 20, 2011, opinion, Williams wrote he did not believe the photographs or FBI notes would be enough to undermined confidence in the jury’s guilty verdict.
Ultimately, the State Supreme Court disagreed with Williams.
“Stenson, in our judgment, has met his burden of showing that there is a reasonable probability that, had the FBI file and photographs been disclosed to the defense, the result of his trial would have been different,” Alexander wrote. “Because we believe the newly discovered evidence undermines confidence in the jury verdict, we reverse Stenson’s convictions and death sentence and remand for a new trial.”
Kelly said it has become clear Stenson’s defense attorneys were well aware that they did not have the FBI lab notes from the gunshot residue tests and did not think they were important.
“It also became clear through those hearings that the defense investigator saw the photographs of the pants with the pockets turned out prior to the time of trial, although the prosecutor never saw them and never knew that had happened,” she said. “This is not a case where either law enforcement or the prosecutor hid evidence. It is instead a case that illustrates that in death penalty cases the standard has become a perfect rather than a fair trial.”
Kelly said she strongly believes that all involved in the investigation and trial of this case acted conscientiously and in good faith toward a just outcome.
Reach Amanda Winters at firstname.lastname@example.org.