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Third defendant gets 41 years for robbery

‘There was no real proof,’ aunt tells judge

The last of three defendants was sentenced Thursday to 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 juvenile robbery conviction, received the stiffest penalty in a case that included amended charges to show that the crimes were committed on a different day than prosecutors initially said; a judge’s sanction against Deputy Prosecutor Eugene Cruz; and a witness’s claim after the jury conviction that he and the prosecution’s main witness conspired to frame Statler and two others for robberies committed by the informants.

On Monday, Spokane County 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 Thursday, Price sentenced Statler to 41.5 years.

Defense attorney Timothy Note said it appeared local law enforcement used the case 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 the three was based on the testimony of 18-year-old Matthew Dunham, who received a 17-month sentence after being caught with his brother and two others robbing drug dealers at gunpoint in April 2008.

Note alleges that Dunham and one of the others arrested, Anthony M. Kongchunji, conspired to blame Gassman, Larson and Statler with three of their robberies in a ploy to obtain leniency. Kongchunji wrote a letter to Paul Statler saying that Gassman, Larson and Statler had nothing to do with the crimes.

On the day of trial, Cruz changed the date of the offense from April 15 to April 17, 2008, which eliminated defense alibis – and drew an $8,000 sanction by Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen.

A jury in February believed Dunham’s testimony and convicted Gassman, Larson and Statler.

At the sentencing Thursday, Statler’s aunt, Donna Wood, pleaded with Judge Price to show leniency.

“There’s got to be something done when there was no real proof,” Wood said. “It’s so hard to accept that our justice system has come to this.”

Price, who previously denied requests for new trials for all three defendants, said Thursday that state law gives 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,” he said.

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