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Disputed conviction gets man 25 years

Tue., June 2, 2009, 5:04 p.m.

Tears streamed down the face of defense attorney David Partovi as his client, 22-year-old Tyler W. Gassman, cried today and listened to his sister plead for justice.

“I don’t know what to say,” Partovi told Superior Court Judge Michael Price after his client was ordered to serve nearly 26 years in prison. “I just want the record to reflect and mankind to know that this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen come out of the courts. For the first time in my entire career, I’m ashamed to be an officer of this court.”

A jury convicted Gassman and co-defendants 22-year-old Paul E. Statler and 29-year-old Robert E. Larson of first-degree robbery, two counts of drive-by shooting and two counts of first-degree assault in a case that sparked outrage when investigators and Deputy Prosecutor Eugene Cruz gutted defense alibis by changing the date of the alleged crime just hours before the trial was set to begin.

That change drew an $8,000 sanction against Cruz by Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen. Cruz and Partovi then traded complaints about each other to the state bar association. But a jury convicted the three defendants at February trial and Price said he could not, based on the law, grant a request for a new trial.

The case drew even more notice when defense witness Anthony Kongchunji wrote a letter to Statler’s father in March claiming that the state’s main witness had framed Statler, Gassman and Larson.

“I thought that I should let you know that Paul, Tyler and Robert were not involved with any of the alleged incidents … because I was involved,” Kongchunji wrote. “The prosecution has threatened me with more charges if I was to get on the stand and tell my story.”

Despite the letter, Cruz argued against a new trial and asked Judge Price to sentence Gassman to prison for more than 33 years in prison. Duane Statler, father of Paul Statler, told Price that his son and Gassman got into legal trouble while they were juveniles.

“They made a mistake and they were guilty,” Statler said. “But I would not be here pushing so hard if I believed they were guilty” in the current case. “I just can’t believe the system let us down like this.”

Like his family and friends, Gassman told Price that he did not commit the crimes for which he now stands convicted.

“I tried to prove it the best I could through a polygraph and showing I was at work,” Gassman said. “When I look at what I’m facing, it blows me away.”

Price pointed out that a jury, not the judge, convicted him of the crime. Price also said he believes in the jury system.

“I don’t think your family members are making up what they said about you. It doesn’t give me any pleasure to see you incarcerated,” Price told Gassman. “But I’m bound by the law.”

Price sentenced Gassman to serve almost 26 years in prison and he will get credit for about a year he has already served in the Spokane County Jail awaiting trial.

As the family waited for paperwork to be signed, Gassman’s stepfather, Vince Culp, stared at Cruz and said: “I don’t know how that guy sleeps at night. This is really a crying shame.”

Cruz declined comment on the case, saying that it remains open until co-defendants Statler and Larson are sentenced this week.

But Partovi added: “I hope for the sake of justice in this community that (Cruz) believes Gassman is guilty. I don’t have the emotional strength to believe that he is doing this knowing Gassman is innocent.”



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