A state appeals court overturned the murder conviction of a Spokane woman who claimed she killed her husband in self-defense after years of forced prostitution.
In a 3-0 ruling, the appellate court’s 3rd Division ordered a new trial for Shellye L. Stark, who is serving a 51-year prison sentence for the Dec. 9, 2007, shooting death of Dale R. Stark at 1620 S. Maple St. on Spokane’s South Hill.
The judges found fault with the trial court’s jury instructions and other legal technicalities.
A Spokane County Superior Court jury convicted Stark, 48, of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in March 2009, after a two-week trial in which Stark claimed self-defense and told sordid stories of forced prostitution and other abuse at the hands of her husband.
Stark’s boyfriend, Brian L. Moore, is in Spokane County Jail awaiting trial on the same charges. Prosecutors say he wasn’t in Spokane when Dale Stark was killed but believe he plotted the murder to access a $400,000 life insurance policy.
In a ruling published Thursday, the appellate court said prosecutors failed to support the state’s theory that Shellye Stark was the aggressor and, therefore, should not have told jurors that if the defendant was the aggressor, self-defense couldn’t be used as a defense.
Prosecutors said Stark obtained a restraining order against her husband to provoke him, “but our Supreme Court has held that spoken words are not sufficient; therefore, written words would likewise not be sufficient provocation for the aggressor instruction,” according to the ruling.
The court said prosecutors failed to prove that Stark made the first move. Rather, testimony showed Dale Stark approached his wife while reaching for a knife before he was shot several times. The autopsy, however, showed he was shot in the back.
“Without supporting evidence to justify giving the aggressor instruction, the court prevented Ms. Stark from fully asserting her self-defense theory,” according to the ruling.
The court also reversed Stark’s conviction for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, saying prosecutors failed to prove that Stark had an agreement with another person to commit the murder.
“Here, the state proved Ms. Stark met with other individuals to obtain a handgun and a shotgun,” according to the ruling. “Viewing the facts and the inferences from the facts as we must, we agree the State has presented circumstantial evidence of an alleged conspiracy.” Jury instructions also failed to name the alleged co-conspirator.
Stark fired her attorneys, Bryan Whitaker and Russell Bradshaw, before sentencing and asked for a new trial, saying the men forced her to testify despite jail employees not providing her prescribed medication.
Neither attorney was available for comment Thursday.
Dale Stark’s friend Richard Terzieff said he was disappointed by the ruling.
“This is a woman who is playing the victim card. She was off living her own life in California, and she comes home and ambushes him,” Terzieff said. “He didn’t even know what hit him.”
Deputy Prosecutor Larry Haskell, who prosecuted the case with Mark Cipolla, said they have not decided whether to appeal the ruling or proceed with a new trial.
The overturned conviction is the latest twist for a case that attracted national attention from true crime television shows as Stark described years of abuse and bizarre sexual abuse that began with forced prostitution in Hollywood early in their marriage.
The couple were separated in 2007 when Stark moved to California and continued advertising online as a prostitute named Nikita Jennifer.
Stark said she’d been threatened by her husband and returned to Spokane to obtain a retraining order. Her sister drove from Priest River to Spokane to help serve the order and provide firearms but was hospitalized after striking a moose with her car. Stark’s nephew retrieved guns from the wreckage to give to Stark, who told jurors she needed them for protection.
A nationally known psychologist testified that Stark suffered from battered woman’s syndrome and felt her only adequate protection from her abusive husband was a firearm.