A federal judge has thrown out a jury’s guilty verdict against a former Spokane County deputy and dismissed the criminal case against him after ruling that prosecutors failed to provide sufficient evidence despite the jury’s decision.
A jury last September found Donald B. Henderson Jr. guilty of lying to obtain more than $650,000 in benefits from both the Veterans Benefits and Social Security administrations, which had been paying him since he signed off on eye exams in 2002 that claimed he was legally blind and could not work.
But U.S. District Court Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson issued a 53-page ruling this week that wipes out the jury’s decision to convict Henderson.
“Ultimately, the court finds that the government failed to meet its burden to prove by sufficient evidence that Mr. Henderson knowingly and willfully, with knowledge that his conduct was unlawful, made a false statement regarding either the permanence or the extent of his visual impairment,” Peterson wrote. “Therefore, the court grants Mr. Henderson’s motion for acquittal.”
The decision was welcome news to attorneys John “Jay” McEntire and Colin Prince, who defended Henderson on behalf of the Federal Defenders of Eastern Washington and Idaho.
“Mr. Henderson feels vindicated and deserves to be vindicated,” Prince said. Friday “marks the five-year anniversary of the day federal agents stormed his house. The man is unquestionably innocent.”
U.S. Attorney Joseph Harrington said his office was still reviewing Peterson’s ruling, which was filed late in the day Wednesday.
“We’ve received the court’s order and the office is determining what steps we may take going forward,” Harrington said.
The government could decide to appeal Judge Peterson’s ruling. But even if it succeeds in getting the ruling overturned, the government would have to conduct a new trial.
The case started when the federal authorities received a tip that Henderson might be able to see better than he told officials at both the U.S Department of Veterans Affairs and Social Security Administration.
During some of the dozens of eye examinations he underwent, Henderson claimed he could not read the first letter on the vision chart and could only tell if the eye doctor was holding up fingers from 6 feet away.
Suspecting that Henderson may be misleading government officials, federal agents set up a camera across from his north Spokane home. Those cameras recorded hours of footage showing him driving a riding lawn mower, backing his car out of the garage and walking in his backyard.
At one point, Henderson, who served in the U.S. Army and later worked as sheriff’s deputy and an investigator for the Washington State Gambling Commission, threw a Frisbee for his dog and pointed out where the disc had landed.
A federal agent then went undercover and posed as the nephew of one of Henderson’s eye doctors. Henderson took the agent shooting, noting when the bullets missed a target more than 20 feet away. Henderson then shot the target, missing the center by a couple of inches.
The defense argued that Henderson suffered fluctuating vision stemming from a traumatic head injury he suffered in 1985 during a motorcycle crash, which occurred as Henderson was trying to get back to his Army base.
“He suffers from a post-trauma migraine disorder, which is something that you would not wish on your worst enemy,” McEntire said in court.
Henderson claimed the migraines caused fluctuations in his eyesight and made it difficult to keep a job. He sometimes suffered 10 migraine headaches in a 14-day stretch, which interfered with his job as a jailer, a profession he started in 1990.
After considering the evidence, the jury acquitted Henderson of a charge of committing Social Security fraud but found him guilty of theft of money from Social Security, making false statements to the VA and theft of money from the VA.
“We always, as attorneys and courts, have to respect the difficult process that the jury goes through,” Prince said. “At the same time, a case like this is incredibly confusing.”
Peterson noted in her ruling that former Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Lister said 12 times in her opening statement that Henderson had claimed he was “permanently blind” to both government agencies.
“At this stage of the proceedings, the court has not found any evidence that Mr. Henderson made a statement that he was ‘permanently blind,’ ” Peterson wrote in her ruling. “As indicated by the court’s conclusions regarding the lack of evidence supporting essential elements of the counts of conviction, the court concludes that the weight of the evidence in this matter does not support the verdict.”
With the acquittal, Prince said Henderson must now attempt to renew the disability payments that he had been receiving.
“It definitely will take time to clean up the mess that was created over the last five years,” he said. “It’s been incredibly difficult for the Henderson family to sit silently through this process and wait to publicly defend itself.”
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