Reckless police work and careless
prosecution cost three men
years of their lives when they were wrongly convicted in 2009 of a drug-rip robbery. The three men were released from prison, and their convictions were overturned in 2012 when a judge ruled the men were "legally" innocent, meaning the evidence against them was insufficient.
But earlier this week, another Spokane judge ruled that the men are "actually" innocent. That means law enforcement's mistake is going to cost the state at least $751,465.75, attorneys say, under the state's wrongly convicted persons law
According to the law, people wrongly convicted of felonies are entitled to compensation from the state only if there is "clear and convincing" evidence that they did not commit the crime. A conviction overturned due to a procedural error or deficient evidence doesn't count.
"[The police] were locked in on these guys and doing everything they could to get them convicted," says Toby Marshall, a Seattle attorney who worked on the civil compensation case. "They weren't searching for the truth."
The case against Paul Statler, Tyler Gassman and Robert Larson was based largely on jailhouse snitch testimony, which is inherently unreliable
Sitting in jail and facing robbery charges of his own, 17-year-old Matt Dunham told a Spokane County Sheriff's detective that he, Statler, Gassman and Larson were responsible for other unsolved robberies.
Detectives and prosecutors cut Dunham a deal: testify against the three men, and authorities would pare down Dunham's sentence to 18 months in juvenile detention. Dunham agreed, and the three men were convicted. But defense attorneys pointed to several issues with the police investigation and prosecutors' handling of the case.
Hours before the trial was scheduled to begin, for example, deputy prosecutor Eugene Cruz changed the date of the alleged crime, obliterating the men's alibis.
Sheriff's Detective Doug Marske was also reprimanded for his handling of the investigation.
After the verdict, Dave Partovi, who represented Gassman at trial, addressed the court:
"I just want the record to reflect and mankind to know that this is the worst thing I've ever seen come out of the courts. For the first time in my entire career, I'm ashamed to be an officer of this court."
Eventually, the investigation by Sheriff's detectives Marske and Bill Francis, bolstered by snitch testimony, crumbled along with the ill-gotten convictions.
One of the men who actually committed those robberies with Dunham confessed. In a letter to Statler's father, Anthony Kongchunji wrote:
"I thought that I should let you know that Paul, Tyler and Robert were not involved with any of the alleged incidents and the reason I know this is because I was involved. The other individuals involved were Larry Dunham, Matthew Dunham and Nicholas Smith."
"We're extremely pleased with [the judge's ruling]," Marshall says. "It's a long-deserved vindication for these guys' rights."