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Guilty until proven innocent

Wrongfully sentenced to 41 years in prison, Paul Statler had nearly lost hope. UW's Innocence Project Northwest was the key to his freedom.

The jail cell at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center was small and cold. It was a stark home for Paul Statler, a 21-year-old Spokane native beginning a four decade jail sentence for armed robbery, its metal fixtures and concrete foundation the perfect metaphor for a harsh justice system.

“I was shellshocked,” said Statler of the day he was convicted. “I knew I was innocent. My attorney did not even know what to tell me. It was devastating.”

Though he wouldn't have know it at the time, Statler's troubles really began at the same time as Eric Weskamp's. Weskamp, the victim of an armed robbery during a drug deal, suffered severe injuries, but was able to identify Matt Dunham and one other accomplice among his numerous attackers. Dunham, desperate to escape a sentence of up to 40 years, struck a plea deal with police, implicating Statler and two other innocent men as additional accomplices.

It turned out the Weskamp robbery was just one of four in which Dunham implicated Statler. But of the other three charges against Statler, one was dismissed by the prosecutor and two resulted in not guilty verdicts.

Only the Weskamp robbery allegations resulted in a conviction. In exchange for thumbing the trio of innocent accomplices, Dunham's sentence was reduced to just 18 months.

By contrast, Statler was sentenced to 41 years. 

The case itself had been tortuous. The original charging documents alleged the crime to have occurred on April 15th — a day when Statler and the two other men also had clear alibis.

Somehow though, prosecutors drummed up telephone records that suggested the crime had actually been committed two days later and the charge was changed to allege a crime on April 17th. Statler's alibi evaporated.

By the time his guilty verdict came around, Statler was exhausted. He'd already spent almost a year in the Spokane County Jail awaiting trial, the most deplorable of the three penal institutions he would occupy. Because of the severity of the crime for which he was charged, Statler had been kept in maximum security, allowed out of his cell only about 15-20 minutes every other day. On weekends, when the jail was in lockdown, that time shrunk to zero.

“I was shocked that it took so long to process [my case],” said Statler. “You are expecting the system to work, for me to get out.”

He'd thought the trial would be the correction of that nightmare, but after the conviction, he faced another lengthy wait as appeals were exhausted.

During the appeals process though, the Statler case was taken up by a former UW law student, who just happened to have been a student of Jacqueline McMurtrie.

McMurtrie, an Associate Professor at the University of Washington School of Law, is also the founder and director of the Innocence Project Northwest. The project employs a variety of methods, like DNA testing, to free innocent prisoners. Since its founding in 1997, the organization's full-time staff has grown to include four attorneys and a paralegal; a team supplemented by volunteer attorneys, University of Washington law students and private investigators.

Photo at right: Jacqueline McMurtrie, founder and director of the Innocence Project Northwest.

Struck by the irregularities of Statler's case, the appeals attorney contacted McMurtrie.

She was intrigued: There was no witness against Statler or either of the other two supposed accomplices except Dunham, who was given a significant reduction in his sentence. Further, the charging documents had been changed to erase the defendants' alibi and the defendants' trial counsel had made no attempt at conducting a counter investigation to determine the actual date of the crime.

On behalf of Statler and the other co-defendants, McMurtrie obtained volunteer attorneys to assist in the case's investigation and hired an investigator to research the alibi claims. Matthew Zuchetto, a Spokane attorney and former student of McMurtrie, was enlisted to help. He, for one, knew it wouldn't be easy.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jan 20, 7:03 a.m. Inappropriate

The state of our justice system is so alarming that the Innocence Project has become an essential part of the process and that is terrifying. Cases like this are why I support IP. Congratulations to the freed men and the attorneys and staff who did their jobs well.

nwsrdr

Posted Mon, Jan 20, 7:04 a.m. Inappropriate

Another example of prosecutorial misconduct unveiled by the Innocence Project. Important work.

Clark County recently settled for over 10 million dollars with two men who were framed and spent 17 years in prison for a crime they did not commit. The Innocence Project was instrumental in this case, as well as their competent attorneys, Jack Connolly and Tim Ford.

Prosecutors wield unchecked power. When they abuse it by witholding evidence or outright lying, the consequences for justice are profound. Are the prosecutors in the Larson case still working?

What are the incidence rates of prosecutorial misconduct sanctions in Washington state by county? I'd love to know.

gaia

Posted Mon, Jan 20, 10:05 a.m. Inappropriate

The photo shows 3 cells with toilets and sinks, one with a table and bench. No beds?

Posted Mon, Jan 20, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Every time I read about cases like this, I remember Steve Titus. In 1981, he was convicted of a rape he didn't commit. He was exonerated only because of the work of Paul Henderson, a beat reporter at the Seattle Times. Henderson looked at and reported on all the exculpatory evidence that was ignored by Port of Seattle police and the King County prosecutor. Henderson won a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

I'm shocked at the disparate sentences handed down in the case here. A guy gets his reduced from 20 years to 18 months for ratting out innocent people? What a hugely powerful incentive to lie. Nobody should ever be convicted of a crime only on the word of con. The criminal justice system should require corroborating evidence, not merely the absence of an alibi.

And we shouldn't overlook how the truly innocent are disadvantaged in the present system. Since they didn't do the deed, they can't plead to a lesser charge, nor can they rat out someone else in return for a short sentence, not without committing the actual crime of perjury.

Prosecutors and police must come to realize they are there to do justice for everyone, innocent and guilty alike, not merely to close case files.

Posted Mon, Jan 20, 1:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Victim Westcamp identified an accomplice to Dunham. Name, please. Also, no mention of any named and interviewed jurors and prosecutors. And, where is Dunham today? This story was hard to follow.

animalal

Posted Sun, Jan 26, 10:23 p.m. Inappropriate

I'll admit it. I clicked over because the RSS feed said "Wrongfully sentenced to 20 years in prison, Robert Larson had nearly lost hope. UW's Innocence Project Northwest was the key to his freedom." - after spending 2 hours at Robert Larson Nissan, I had nearly lost hope.

tvjames

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