Three men who spent more than four years behind bars based chiefly on a recanted confession will try to persuade a Spokane jury to compensate them for more than $680,000.
Robert Larson, Tyler Gassman and Paul Statler sued the state last year, citing a law passed just two years ago that enables wrongfully convicted defendants to seek damages for time spent behind bars. The men were found guilty of charges including robbery, assault and drive-by shooting stemming from a violent drug-related incident in April 2008. But that conviction was based on information from jailhouse informant Anthony Kongchunji who later admitted to falsely implicating the three men to avoid more jail time.
Boyd Mayo, an attorney representing the trio, said the civil trial will be an opportunity to clear the men’s names.
“These guys are actually innocent,” Mayo said. “We’re eager to go to trial.”
Larson, Gassman and Statler were each handed decadeslong prison sentences that were thrown out by Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price in December 2012, following the involvement of the Innocence Project Northwest. Attorneys at that University of Washington-affiliated program recovered phone records and other evidence disputing the trio’s involvement in the crime – evidence that wasn’t presented before they were sentenced.
The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office sergeant in charge of the case, Doug Marske, was the subject of an internal affairs investigation. His conduct in the case included altering an affidavit of facts and falsely informing Kongchunji that he would face perjury charges if he testified to clear the men in the robbery. The Spokane County deputy prosecutor who handled the trial, Eugene Cruz, was initially sanctioned for changing the date of the alleged robbery at the eleventh hour, denying defense attorneys time to dispute the prosecution’s timeline.
Marske was cleared of wrongdoing in an internal Sheriff’s Office investigation. The Washington Supreme Court later threw out Cruz’s sanction.
Larson, Gassman and Statler sued the state in January 2014. Mayo said it’s the first time such a case has gone to trial since a law allowing compensation for wrongfully convicted defendants was approved by both chambers of the Washington Legislature in April 2013.
The law allows for payment only if the incarcerated person is “actually innocent” of the charged crimes. That means lawyers must prove the person did not commit the criminal acts alleged in charging documents, a threshold the Washington attorney general’s office believes the three Spokane men have not yet met. Richard Weber, an assistant attorney general handling the case for the office, argues in court filings that the recanted confession of Kongchunji is not enough to prove the men’s innocence.
Price left open the door for Spokane prosecutors to bring charges against the trio again after he vacated their sentences in December 2012, and prosecutors declined to do so.
Kongchunji is expected to testify at trial, as is Matthew Dunham, who was 17 at the time of the robbery and allegedly hatched the scheme to falsely implicate the three men. Mayo and his co-counsel, Matthew Zuchetto, have sought to bar several witnesses from testifying for the state, claiming the attorney general’s office missed a court-ordered deadline in revealing they’d be called.
“The state has really just delayed and delayed,” Zuchetto said.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 26. In addition to the more than $220,000 each of the men are seeking in compensation, they’re asking for reimbursement of court costs and money to cover child support costs.
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