Three men whose convictions for drug-related crimes were thrown out after they spent four years in prison are not entitled to compensation by the state, a Spokane County judge has ruled.
Robert Larson, Tyler Gassman and Paul Statler sued the state in January 2014 and sought about $680,000 under a law written to compensate prisoners who were wrongfully jailed. The three men were convicted of charges including assault, robbery and drive-by-shooting stemming from drug-related activity in April 2008 and have maintained their innocence.
Judge John Cooney, who heard four days of testimony last month in the case, issued his ruling Thursday finding that the men had a claim for legal malpractice, but were not entitled to compensation under the state’s wrongfully convicted persons law.
“In this case, the single reason for the plaintiffs’ wrong convictions was the deficiencies of trial counsel,” Cooney wrote.
Testimony focused on the admission, later recanted, by jailhouse informant Anthony Kongchunji that the three men assisted in the masked holdup of known oxycodone dealers at gunpoint. Kongchunji later told investigators he fabricated the story in order to avoid more jail time.
Boyd Mayo, one of the attorneys representing the men, said Tuesday that the legal team is weighing its options for appeal.
“It’s a difficult case,” Mayo said. “It’s one we believe the statute was enacted to remedy.”
The Washington attorney general’s office, which represented the state, disagreed. They argued the men were never found to be “actually innocent” of the crimes as defined in the law, though prosecutors declined to pursue charges after Judge Michael Price threw out their convictions in December 2012.
“We appreciate the court’s decision and think Judge Cooney got it right on the law,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement Tuesday.
Mayo and his colleagues offered evidence, including time cards from Larson’s work and testimony from Kongchunji and others rebutting the trio’s involvement in the robbery, during which a single shot was fired from a moving vehicle.
But Cooney was unconvinced by the testimony, calling it a “relatively small amount of evidence.”
“The evidence presented by the plaintiffs establishes when the plaintiffs were unable to commit the crimes, but do not prove that they did not engage in any of the illegal conduct in the charging documents,” Cooney wrote.
The men were seeking roughly $220,000 apiece in compensation for their years spent in prison, as well as child support expenses and other costs. They have 30 days from the decision by Cooney to decide if they will appeal.
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