A judge today denied a request for a new trial in a case that resulted in the convictions of three suspects, an $8,000 sanction against prosecutors and allegations of misconduct against attorneys on both sides.
Superior Court Judge Michael Price ruled that 22-year-old Tyler W. Gassman should not receive a new trial even after a key witness has since changed his story and said he lied to try to get a better case for himself.
Requests for new trials based on the same argument are also pending for co-defendants Paul E. Statler, 22, and 29-year-old Robert Larson. Both requests are expected to be argued next Wednesday.
Price wrote that the standard for a new trial is that any “new evidence” used as a basis of a new trial could only be evidence that could not have been obtained prior to trial.
“The fact that Mr. Gassman’s lawyer chose not to call Mr. Kongchunji at trial in this proceeding does not make Mr. Kongchunji’s testimony, whatever it may have been, ‘newly discovered,’” Price wrote. “Counsel has failed to demonstrate any legitimate basis … for a new trial in this matter,” Price wrote in his decision.
Gassman’s attorney, David Partovi, said Price’s ruling was “disheartening” because Partovi said he didn’t learn of Kongchunji’s change of story until after the trial.
“It’s difficult for me to understand,” said Partovi, who said he plans to appeal the conviction following Gassman’s sentencing scheduled for June 2. “I disagree with (Price’s) reasoning.”
On Feb. 17, a jury convicted Gassman, Statler and Larson of first-degree robbery, first-degree assault and drive-by shooting that occurred sometime in mid-April 2008.
Partovi sought a new trial for Gassman after witness Anthony Kongchunji, 21, wrote a letter to Statler’s father, saying that Kongchunji conspired with another witness to bring the false allegations that resulted in convictions against Statler, Gassman and Larson.
“I’m writing you this letter to tell you it is wrong and unjust what the state is doing to your son Paul,” Kongchunji wrote in March to Statler’s father, Duane Statler. “I found out that Paul, Tyler, and Robert lost their recent trial and im (sic) stunned.
“I thought I should let you know that Paul, Tyler, and Robert were not involved with any of the alleged incidents and the reason I know this is because I was involved.”
Kongchunji instead implicated others, including Larry Dunham, Matthew Dunham and Nicolas Smith. Kongchunji said he tried to change his story back to the truth but said he was threatened by a Spokane County Sheriff’s Detective with more charges if he recanted his original statement.
“I made up a bunch of lies in hopes of getting a better deal, but that didn’t work,” said Kongchunji, who was sentenced to serve 14 years in prison.
Matthew Dunham, who was 17 at the time of the alleged crime, was given an 18-month sentence for his involvement in at least two robberies of drug dealers and “crimes of dishonesty.”
Partovi and Statler’s attorney, Timothy Note, said Dunham made up the stories against their clients to shift blame from himself and his older brother, Larry Dunham, who also took a plea deal admitting to an April 23, 2008, robbery and received a sentence of 51 months in prison.
Matthew Dunham “was basically their only evidence,” Note said. “I have concerns anytime an entire case and prosecution rests solely on the uncorroborated statements of a co-defendant who obviously has motive to lie.”
But the case was mostly known for a decision by Sheriff’s detective William Francis to change the date of the alleged robbery from April 15, 2008, to April 17, 2008, on which the defendants had less secure alibis. Deputy Prosecutor Eugene Cruz amended the charges with the new date as the trial was about to begin on Jan. 12.
Defense attorneys claimed that they weren’t notified of the date change prior to the trial and argued that they needed that information to provide an adequate defense.
Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen agreed and sanctioned the prosecutors $8,000 and gave them a rebuke for their handling of the case.
As a result, Partovi accused Cruz of prosecutorial misconduct and Cruz later filed a complaint against Partovi to the Washington State Bar Association after the defense attorney pushed for a “release-dismiss” agreement for Gassman.