CHAPTER 7: THE SYSTEM
Gassman and the others weren’t convicted by the detectives, the prosecutor or even the judge. A jury found them guilty. Twelve people heard the evidence, listened to Matt Dunham testify and found the men guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. One of them was Stephen Coyner.
“We felt the defense just did a terrible job,” says Coyner, who’s employed as a driver for Pepsi. “They just did an awful job with the evidence and the presentation of the case… They used the moms [as witnesses]. Who’s going to take the word of the moms? Every one of them — you could tell that they wanted to protect their kids.”
By contrast, the prosecutor was effective: “I’m going to give kudos to [Eugene Cruz] on this. He was right on target. With the evidence he had and the way he presented himself — he was very professional and, you know, people notice that.”
Nearly all the jurors, Coyner says, found Matt Dunham’s testimony compelling. “He did come across very credible, and we went back and forth,” he says. One of the jurors had reservations. But the fact of Dunham’s plea deal — which required that he testify “truthfully” — sealed it in Coyner’s mind.
“We went over the plea deal very carefully, and it looked like he had everything to lose if he wasn’t telling the truth,” Coyner says. “That was kind of a factor in it.”
Told of Kongchunji’s version of events, Coyner says it gives him some pause. “You never know,” he says. “If I had to do it all over, with what I was given, I would do the same thing. The exact same thing.”
Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, has written extensively about snitches and their use by law enforcement, including her 2009 book, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.
Snitches are notoriously unreliable. Natapoff points to the 2004 study by Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions that showed that snitches are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases; about 46 percent of those bad verdicts can be traced to false snitch testimony.
Still, the use of snitches by police has skyrocketed in recent decades, especially in drug cases, Natapoff says. For one, they are cheap; police can cut deals with snitches, rather than spend resources on longer, more thorough investigations. “You can make a snitch for free,” Natapoff says.
But snitching accomplices have been shown to be so unreliable, in fact, that a dozen or so states now require their testimony to be corroborated by some other evidence. Washington is not one of those states. It’s hard to overturn convictions based on snitches, Natapoff adds, because jurors are the ones empowered to assess a witness’ credibility.
“Our criminal justice system is very bad at finding and fixing its own mistakes,” she says.
Tim Note, Paul Statler’s attorney, doesn’t blame jurors. He strongly believes in the system. “Jurors have a tough job,” he says. “However they reach their decision, as long as they reach it legally … I don’t want them to feel bad about their decision.”
He says the problem in this case, though, is that jurors never got to hear the testimony of Kongchunji, who, if you believe him, was told not to talk by a detective.
“That’s when the irreparable harm took place,” Notes says, “and it raises the question: What were the detectives afraid of?” Justice at this point, Note adds, would be a new trial for the men where all witnesses get their chance to testify, including Kongchunji.
“If the results were still the same, that’s the system,” he says.
“Justice doesn’t mandate any outcome. It mandates a process.”
CHAPTER 8: THE HOMEFRONT
Paul Statler’s dad, Duane, is a high school custodian and lives in a small house near the train tracks in the Valley. On the kitchen table, he’s assembled the artifacts of his son’s life — photos, court records, notes, newspaper clippings, scraps of paper and Kongchunji’s letter to him. Just look, he says, “There’s enough evidence right here, in black and white, to send our boys home.”
Statler tosses blame
in several directions: at the detectives, at prosecutor Eugene Cruz, at
Judge Price, at himself for not being able to spend more on his son’s
defense and at Matt Dunham.
“Matt ruined my life,” he says. “He’s ruined the last two years of my life. I need to stay away from Matt Dunham. I’m sorry… I want to hurt him. I want to hurt him bad.”
Statler says if his son or the others were guilty, they would have fessed up, cut a deal, pleaded guilty to avoid spending the next 40 years behind bars, like his son got. His son is being housed at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, 500 miles away on the Olympic peninsula.
trying to figure out why Eugene Cruz wanted our kids so bad and when
he found out that Anthony Kongchunji and Matt Dunham conspired to frame
our kids, why did he let it go this far?” Statler asks.
“At what point and time does common sense come in and say, ‘Let’s give them another shot?’” All three of them are decent young men, Statler says. Before his arrest, his son had just filled out paperwork at Spokane Community College and planned to go back to school. Gassman, meanwhile, had recently landed a good construction job. And Larson was a fixture in the neighborhood, tending the lawns of several elderly women and working at the tile company a couple of blocks down the street.
Duane Statler points again to the stack of paper on the kitchen table, his evidence, and is left with only questions.
“Why did they put my family through this?
Why not go back and right the wrong? Explain to me why.”
Matt Dunham is back home. After a year and half in a juvenile facility, he walked out a free man on his 19th birthday in September. On a Saturday in January, he is at his mom’s split-level house in the Valley, a big boat parked in the backyard and the getaway truck he used in the robberies parked out front.
He answers the door after several knocks. It’s 11:30 am. Dunham’s clothes are wrinkled and his hair matted against his head. He just got up, he says, standing just inside the doorway.
I tell him that I’m writing about the case and ask him to chat. Not right now, he says. How about one question: Were Gassman, Statler and Larson with you for those crimes, or are they innocent?
“They’re not innocent,” he says, adding before shutting the door, “I don’t want to talk right now. I’ve got your numbers, and I’ll call you.”
He never did.
The Inlander is committed to exposing miscarriages of justice. We focus on cases in Eastern Washington and North Idaho of people who have credible claims of innocence. Send tips and story ideas to email@example.com or call the news tip line at (509) 325-0634 ext. 264.