In a criminal case that may be of interest to some readers, the Washington Supreme Court this morning vacated the conviction and death sentence of Darold Ray Stenson, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of his wife and business partner in 1994.
Stenson called 911 after “finding” his wife (Denise Stenson) and business partner (Frank Hoerner) dead in his home. He told police that Hoerner was with him in their office, when Hoerner went to Stenson’s house to use the bathroom. Hoerner did not return, so Stenson went to the house, where he claimed to have found his wife and Hoerner dead — both of them shot.
After investigation, the police came to a different conclusion. Evidence showed that Hoerner had been beaten unconscious in Stenson’s driveway before he was dragged into the house and shot at close range. And Stenson had financial troubles: he owed $50,000 to Hoerner that he could not repay, and he had a $400,000 life insurance policy on his wife. Add to that evidence showing gunshot residue in the pocket of Stenson’s jeans and blood spatters on his jeans consistent with Hoerner’s blood. The jury convicted Stenson and he was sentenced to death.
Then in 2009 Stenson’s attorneys learned of two facts that were not disclosed to them prior to (or during) the trial: (1) Stenson’s jeans, the ones tested for gunshot residue, had been worn and handled by an officer without gloves prior to the test, and (2) the actual testing was not performed by the FBI’s expert who testified at trial, but by another individual who had never been identified to or questioned by the defense team.
The Supreme Court concluded that the State’s failure to disclose this evidence effected a Brady violation because (1) the undisclosed evidence was favorable to Stenson, (2) the evidence was “suppressed” by the State, and (3) caused prejudice to Stenson. On this third prong, it was not necessary for Stenson to prove his innocence, or that the evidence would necessarily have led to an acquittal; rather, the standard for prejudice is that Stenson must show “a reasonable probability that, had the evidence bee disclosed to the defense, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” (emphasis added). In other words, did the suppression of evidence “undermine confidence in the outcome of the trial”? The Supreme Court answered that it did.