Judge throws out robbery convictions
Three men freed after four years in custody
Family members gasped with joy and wept Friday as a judge threw out the disputed robbery convictions of three Spokane men who have argued for years that they were framed by a snitch who was trying to spare himself and his brother from longer prison terms.
Superior Court Judge Michael Price, after reviewing new evidence in the case, offered scathing criticism of what he called the failures of the three attorneys who previously defended Paul E. Statler, Tyler W. Gassman and Robert E. Larson. Price vacated the 2009 convictions for robbery, assault and drive-by shooting that netted Statler about 42 years, Gassman 26 and Larson 20 years in prison.
“Mr. Larson, Mr. Gassman and Mr. Statler were entitled to a fair trial and effective counsel,” Price said. “One cannot go on without the other. Here the counsel failed … to discover evidence critical to rebutting the state’s case.”
Price said arguments presented by attorneys on behalf of the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic had provided new phone and work records – which had not been sought by earlier defense attorneys – that raised serious doubt whether a jury would have convicted the three men.
Statler, Gassman and Larson all have spent more than four years in jail or prison following their arrests in 2008.
“It’s a Christmas miracle,” one crying family member said as she hugged another.
Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Eugene Cruz said a trial date has been set for Feb. 25, but declined to say whether his office would pursue a new trial.
Cruz was sanctioned $8,000 by a different judge for changing the date of the alleged crime on the first day of trial, although the sanction was later reversed by the Washington Supreme Court.
“We are overjoyed by what happened here today,” said attorney Jackie McMurtrie, who works with the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic at the University of Washington. “To have everyone in court to hear the judge’s ruling was one of the most profound moments in my career.”
Spokane County sheriff’s Sgt. Thomas Hill told the packed courtroom that the three men would be released as soon as he could process paperwork. He was thanked by a defense attorney.
“I believe in the system,” Hill told the attorney. “Today was a victory for the system.”
But the system, many argued, was tortured in this case from the beginning.
Sheriff’s detectives William Francis and Doug Marske built a criminal case against the three men based on the testimony of Matthew Dunham, who was 17 at the time and received 17 months in jail. Dunham and his older brother, Larry M. Dunham, had earlier pleaded guilty to a home-invasion robbery of two other drug dealers on April 23, 2008.
But Matthew Dunham, later court documents allege, conspired in jail with a co-defendant, Anthony Kongchunji, to blame an earlier robbery on Statler, 26, Larson, 32, and Gassman, 25.
The case proceeded to trial in January 2009, but on the day the trial was to start, Cruz sparked outrage when he changed the date that the alleged drug house robbery occurred, from April 15 to April 17, 2008. That gutted the alibi defense of two of the suspects, who had evidence showing they were elsewhere on April 15.
Changing the date of when the robbery occurred prompted Superior Court Judge Tari Eitzen to levy the $8,000 sanction – the first of her career – against the prosecutor’s office, and she gave defense attorneys Timothy Note, David Partovi and Anna Nordtvedt another month to prepare their cases.
But none of those attorneys sought phone records that would have shown Matthew Dunham had called one of the alleged robbery victims prior to the incident and afterward. During the trial, Price noted, Dunham testified that he didn’t know any of the victims in the case.
“When one party is the perpetrator and one is the victim, it doesn’t make any sense that they would be communicating before and after the crime,” Price said. “Defense counsel didn’t know this because they didn’t ask about it.”
During the trial, defense attorneys learned that Anthony Kongchunji wanted to change his story and admit that Dunham was trying to set up Statler, Gassman and Larson. But when pressed, Kongchunji claimed through his attorney that he would refuse to testify.
None of the defense attorneys called Kongchunji, and the jury believed Dunham’s testimony in convicting all three men.
Following the convictions, Kongchunji wrote a letter to Statler’s father, Duane Statler, apologizing for what he had done.
“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.”
Armed with the letter, defense attorneys Note, Partovi and Nordtvedt sought a new trial. But Judge Price denied that trial, and was upheld on appeal, because Price said the attorneys should have known that Kongchunji could have been ordered to testify.
The case foundered until it was taken up by attorneys from the Innocence Project Northwest Clinic, which obtained phone and work records that appeared to dispute Dunham’s version of events.
Price made his decision Friday based on those arguments.
“I’m very happy,” Duane Statler said. “I’ve never really given up. I always was under the impression that the system would correct itself. It has, with the help of the Innocence Project Northwest. Without them, they would still be in prison.”
Janelle Larson, the mother of Robert Larson, said she cried when she heard Judge Price’s words.
“It’s been a long time,” she said. “We all knew they didn’t do it. We are going to get him home, celebrate and probably cry some more.”