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Free Men, For Now 

After serving more than four years behind bars, three men get another chance to make their case

click to enlarge Tyler Gassman, seen here in prison, was released from custody last Friday. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Tyler Gassman, seen here in prison, was released from custody last Friday.

Duane Statler had fought to bring his son home for nearly five years, and when it finally happened last week, he wasn’t prepared. “My heart was pounding,” he says. “I was ready to have a heart attack.”

Statler packed into a Spokane courtroom on Friday as Superior Court Judge Michael Price tossed out the robbery convictions of Statler’s son, Paul, and two of his friends — Tyler Gassman and Robert Larson. The judge said new evidence presented by the men’s attorneys had raised serious questions about the case, which The Inlander investigated in a 2010 cover story titled “Reasonable Doubt.”

“Mr. Larson, Mr. Gassman and Mr. Statler were entitled to a fair trial and effective counsel,” Price told the courtroom. “One cannot go on without the other. Here the counsel failed … to discover evidence critical to rebutting the state’s case.”

The new evidence cited by Price includes phone and work records that contradict the account of prosecutors’ star witness: a jailhouse snitch named Matt Dunham, who got his own sentence trimmed to 18 months in exchange for testifying.

Still, a jury in 2009 found the men guilty based on Dunham’s testimony, and Statler was later sentenced to 41 years, Gassman to 25 and Larson to 20.

“We’re relieved that the court recognized the injustice that these young men faced and overturned their convictions based on new evidence calling into the question the informant witness’ credibility,” says Jacqueline McMurtrie, director of the Innocence Project Northwest, which worked on the case. “We’re hopeful that the prosecution will recognize that this case never should have been tried in the first place and will dismiss the charges.”

A new trial has been set for Feb. 25, but Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Tucker tells The Inlander “we haven’t decided yet” whether to retry the case. A meeting has been scheduled in a few days to discuss their options, Tucker says.

The case had troubles from the start. Indeed, just hours before the original trial was set to begin, Deputy Prosecutor Eugene Cruz changed the date of the alleged robbery from April 15 to April 17, wiping out the men’s alibis.

“This is a big deal — this changes the case,” Judge Tari Eitzen said at the time. The defense attorneys urged her to toss out the case, but instead the judge came up with an unusual solution: She would fine prosecutors $8,000. (The sanction was later reversed on appeal.)

After the trio was convicted, one of Dunham’s friends, Anthony Kongchunji, came forward with this admission: He said he and Dunham hatched a plan inside jail to pin their crimes on someone else to protect their friends, who were actually involved. With Kongchunji’s confession, defense attorneys filed for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence, but Judge Price denied it.

In court on Friday, though, it was a different story. Attorneys presented records suggesting the alleged robbery actually took place on April 15 — the original date before prosecutors changed it. Price also cited phone records showing Dunham had called one of the alleged victims before and after the robbery, contradicting his testimony that he didn’t know any of the victims.

But the ordeal is long from over, Duane Statler says. There’s still the prospect of a new trial, and Statler says his son, Gassman and Larson aren’t talking publicly while that possibility looms. There’s also the work of starting over, Statler says, and that won’t be easy. His son is not the same, he says. He’s quiet, he can’t sleep and he doesn’t like being around people. Since his son’s release on Friday, Statler has taken Paul to eat and to buy clothes.

“I’m trying to get him back up in the saddle,” Statler says. “That four, almost five-year stint in prison — it’s going to take a while to get him back on the horse. It’s affected him profoundly.”

Statler has other work on his mind, too: changing state law. A dozen or so states require the testimony of snitches to be corroborated by some other evidence. Washington is not one of those states, and that’s what Statler wants to change.

Nationwide, snitches are notoriously unreliable. A 2004 study by Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions showed that snitches are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases.

Still, the use of snitches by police has skyrocketed in recent decades, especially in drug cases, according to Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who wrote the book Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

Rather than spend resources on more thorough investigations, police often cut deals with snitches, in part because they’re cheap. Says Natapoff: “You can make a snitch for free.” 

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