June 4, 2009 in News

Convicted robber gets 41 years in controversial case

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The last of three defendants was sentenced today to serve more than 41 years in prison for a robbery and drive-by shooting that all three suspects and a key witness claim they didn’t commit.

Paul E. Statler, 22, who had a previous conviction for robbery as a juvenile, received the stiffest penalty in a case that has been mired by the changing of the date of the alleged offense, a judge’s sanction against Deputy Prosecutor Eugene Cruz and a witness claiming after the jury conviction that he and the prosecution’s main witness had conspired to frame Statler and two others for robberies that the informants themselves had committed.

On Monday, Superior Court Judge Michael Price sentenced co-defendant Tyler W. Gassman to serve about 25 years in prison. On Tuesday, Price sentenced 29-year-old Robert E. Larson _ who had no previous criminal record _ to 20 years.

And today, Price sentenced Statler to 41-and-a-half years, which is 16 more years in prison than South Hill rapist Kevin Coe was ordered to serve after his 1981 rape conviction.

Defense attorney Timothy Note said it appeared that local law enforcement used the case as a way to get “people that they deemed undesirable off the street. This case was built on an informant’s testimony who had a clear motive to protect himself and protect his family.”

The case against Statler, Larson and Gassman essentially came down to the testimony of 18-year-old Matthew Dunham, who received a 17-month sentence after being caught with his brother, 20-year-old Larry M. Dunham, 24-year-old Nicholas S. Smith and 21-year-old Anthony M. Kongchunji robbing known drug dealers at gunpoint in April 2008.

Once arrested, Kongchunji and Matthew Dunham _ who were housed in the same wing of the Spokane County Jail _ then conspired to blame Gassman, Larson and Statler with three of their robberies in a ploy to obtain leniency, Note said.

“They decided who to implicate to get themselves deals,” Note said.

It worked. Prosecutors agreed to plea agreements that sent Larry Dunham and Nicholas Smith to prison for just over four years and Kongchunji got 14 years.

“They were facing the same sentences that our clients got,” said Assistant Public Defender Anna Nordtvedt. “It’s just a big mess.”

A jury in February convicted Gassman, Larson and Statler in the present case even though Cruz changed the date of the alleged offense from April 15 to April 17 on the day of trial, which gutted defense alibis and drew an $8,000 sanction by Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen.

At the sentencing today, Statler’s aunt, Donna Wood, pleaded with Judge Price, who ended up presiding over the trial, to show leniency.

“I know this will be the last time I see him,” Wood said. “There’s got to be something done when there was no real proof. It’s so hard to accept that our justice system has come to this.”

Price previously denied requests for new trials for all three defendants after Kongchunji wrote a letter to Paul Statler acknowledging that Gassman, Larson and Statler had nothing to do with the crimes for which they now could spend most of the rest of their lives in prison.

Price said he was bound by the law to deny new trials because none of the defense attorneys put Kongchunji on the witness stand.

All three defense attorneys explained at previous hearings that Kongchunji had told them just prior to trial that he would not testify after a sheriff’s detective threatened him with 20 more years in prison for perjury if he changed his previous story implicating Statler, Larson and Gassman, Note said.

“This is the part of my job I dislike the most,” said Price, explaining that state law gave him no discretion to lower Statler’s sentence. “I can’t help but wonder why we can’t come up with a better way to do this. I am very saddened by this entire situation.”

Previously, Cruz said he would not comment until all three defendants were sentenced. But once that was completed today, Cruz again declined comment saying the case remains open because all three defendants indicated they plan to appeal.


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