February 10, 2009 in City

Attorneys say wrong men charged

Trial gets under way in drug-related robbery
By The Spokesman-Review
 

It was a drug deal gone bad – but who was involved?

In a Spokane County Superior Court jury trial that began Monday, the state is accusing three men of taking part in the April 17 home-invasion robbery of several drug dealers negotiating an OxyContin purchase.

Robert E. Larson, Tyler W. Gassman and Paul E. Statler are each charged with first-degree robbery, attempted first-degree murder, first-degree assault and two counts of drive-by shooting in the incident on East Cataldo Avenue.

“This is a classic example of the darker side of activities that go on in Spokane,” deputy prosecutor Eugene Cruz said in his opening statement, likening the drug purchase and the ensuing robbery and shootout to a cancer.

There’s one big problem with the state’s case, defense attorneys said: Their clients weren’t there. They said the defendants were fingered by a teenager, 17 at the time of the incident, who was an admitted participant in the heist and is awaiting sentencing.

Matthew Dunham, now 18, will get an exceptionally light 18-month sentence as a juvenile in exchange for his testimony, said defense attorney Timothy Note, representing Statler. The other participants in the drug deal didn’t identify the three men who are on trial, Note said.

“There will be only one person in this trial who will put my client and the other defendants there at the scene: Matthew Dunham. Evidence will come out that (Dunham) has some self-interest in saying what he says,” Note added.

Violent drug deals are a regrettable fact of life in Spokane, but when they occur, “we need to make sure the right people are charged,” said assistant public defender Anna Nordtvedt, who represents Larson.

Attorney David Partovi, representing Gassman, said he’d reserve his opening statements for the end of the state’s case.

The home invasion case has already taken some unusual turns. A related trial involving the same defendants was abruptly dismissed at the request of the prosecutor’s office in January.

The case has been marked by flaring tempers and accusations of prosecutorial misconduct, a speedy trial deadline that nearly expired last week and a rare sanction by Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen, who fined the prosecutors’ office $8,000 for “careless” handling of the case by changing the date of the alleged drug deal in charging documents at the last minute, hurting the defense team’s trial preparation efforts.

The prosecutor has filed a motion for reconsideration of the sanction, which Eitzen will hear Feb. 25.

Superior Court Judge Michael P. Price is hearing the case. Dunham, the witness who accused Larson, Gassman and Statler of participating in the incident, is scheduled to testify this afternoon.

Reach Karen Dorn Steele at (509) 459-5462 or karend@spokesman.com.

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