Triple Exoneration: Charges Dismissed Against Three Men Wrongly Imprisoned on Testimony of Informant
|L-R: Paul Statler, Robert Larson, Tyler Gassman
Photo Credit: Jack Storms
Spokane, WA -- Tyler Gassman, Robert Larson and Paul Statler were exonerated when their 2009 convictions for robbery, assault and drive-by shooting were dismissed. The State moved to dismiss the charges against Robert Larson on June 3, 2013 and charges against Tyler Gassman and Paul Statler were dismissed with prejudice on July 23, 2013. The dismissals came seven months after Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price vacated the men’s convictions. On December 14, 2012, Judge Price ruled that the volume of evidence presented by post-conviction counsel raised serious doubts about the original jury’s verdict and about the reliability of the State’s informant. After Judge Price ordered the men’s immediate release from prison the State indicated its intent to proceed to re-trial. However, the men’s five year ordeal came to an end when the charges were officially dismissed.
“These cases poignantly demonstrate the need for our system to reexamine its use of informant testimony,” said Jacqueline McMurtrie, the Director of the Innocence Project Northwest. “Paul, Tyler and Robert are innocent men who spent nearly five years in prison based solely on the word of an informant who got an extraordinary deal – one ‘too good to be true’ - for his testimony.”
The testimony of Matt Dunham, the State’s cooperating witness, was the only evidence tying any of the men to the alleged robbery of Rob Seiler and Eric Weskamp during a drug deal. The charges came about after Matt Dunham, along with his brother and two others, was arrested after committing a violent home invasion on April 23, 2008. A month later, Dunham, entered into a “cooperation agreement” with the police, and implicated Gassman, Larson and Statler in four robberies. In exchange, Dunham, who was facing a 30 to 40 year prison sentence, received a sentence of less than 18 months in juvenile detention. Of the four cases in which Dunham had implicated Gassman, Larson and Statler, one case was dismissed by the State after a jury was impanelled. A jury returned not guilty verdicts in two cases. The fourth case resulted in guilty verdicts and prison sentences of 41 years for Paul Statler, 26 years for Tyler Gassman, and 20 years for Robert Larson.
Initially, law enforcement believed the date of the crime to be April 15, a day for which each defendant had an alibi. Those alibis, including Mr. Larson’s timecard showing he was at work at the time of the robbery, proved fatal to Dunham’s version of events. Thus, the State found a witness who said his phone records suggested the crime date was April 17 and the State moved to amend the Information on the eve of trial. The Court granted the State’s motion to amend the Information and postponed the case for three weeks.
It was undisputed that Weskamp, one of the robbery victims, suffered significant injuries during the attack and left work early the day after the robbery because of those injuries. Post-conviction counsel obtained Weskamp’s work records, which showed he left work early on April 16, 2008, the only day that week that he did not work a full 8-hour day. This evidence established the date of the crime was April 15, as initially charged, and not April 17 as the State alleged at trial. This and other post-conviction evidence led Judge Price to vacate the convictions.
“It takes a village to exonerate an innocent person,” said M. Fernanda Torres, of the Innocence Project Northwest, who represented Paul Statler. “The dedicated work of many people, including the post-conviction team of law students Allison Sherrill '12 and Michael Sprangers '12; attorneys Allen D. Clark of Baetz/Lamka/Clark LLP and Matthew J. Zuchetto ’02 of The Scott Law Group; and investigators Ted Pulver and Tim Provost, led to getting the convictions overturned. When the State threatened re-trial, we were fortunate to bring Chris Bugbee and Mark Vovos, two experienced criminal defense attorneys, on-board.”
Informant, or ‘snitch’ testimony is a leading cause of wrongful convictions and is known to have contributed to wrongful convictions in nearly 1/5th of the first 301 DNA exonerations. Alexandra Natapoff, author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice, concludes that “the criminal system does not have good internal mechanisms to protect defendants from lying informants--wrongful convictions are difficult to unearth and even harder to fix.”
Duane Statler, Paul Statler’s father, became a strong advocate for legislative reform while his son was in prison. His efforts were among the reasons Washington State Senator Mike Padden convened a 2012 work session focusing on reducing the risks of informant use in our criminal justice system.
Mark Vovos, who represented Tyler Gassman said: “These young men are innocent. The Legal System failed them the first time. It was an honor for me to help in a small way the Innocence Project Northwest set the record straight.”
Paul Statler was represented pre-trial by M. Fernanda Torres of the Innocence Project Northwest, Tyler Gassman by Mark E. Vovos and Robert Larson by Chris Bugbee.
For more information about the Innocence Project Northwest: www.ipnw.org