Guilty until proven innocent

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.

“Anyone who has been imprisoned and has exhausted their appeal rights [faces] a tremendous uphill battle to get a conviction revised,” said Zuchetto. “The deck is stacked against them. It is very difficult to even get a judge to look at new evidence.”

Before long though, the Innocence Project's investigator discovered work records from Weskamp, the original victim of the robbery. Weskamp had taken the day off of work the day after the robbery to attend to his injuries. That day, his work records showed, was April 16th. For Statler and the others, this meant their alibis were back on.

Armed with the results of its investigation and the reestablishment of the trio's alibis, the project and its volunteer attorneys presented a petition to Spokane County Superior Court to vacate the convictions. The trio's original defense attorneys, they argued, had done them a disservice by not investigating the date of the crime further. The court agreed that such an argument had merit, scheduling a hearing for Statler and the other two. 

Facing another 35 years to the four and a half he'd already served, Statler was anxious when he arrived at his hearing on December 14, 2012.  “Here I am knowing I am innocent, and just praying that the judge would listen to everything openly," he remembers. "I remember Jackie squeezing my hand as Judge Price was reading his decision.”

In fact, the judge did more than that. The court ruled that the trial counsel's failure to investigate the date of the crime was significant. “There is no greater responsibility than representing a person accused of a serious felony," Judge Price said. "Attorneys who are not willing to undertake that responsibility should engage in other practices of law, such as writing wills.”

And then Judge Price went one step further: He ordered the immediate release of all three inmates. 

“None of us expected an immediate release,” said Statler. “That was a miracle that caught everyone off guard. It was such a shock. It took me months to process it.”

Photo at right: The exonerated defendants. From left, Paul Statler, Robert Larson and Tyler Gassman. Courtesy UW Law.

It's not quite over.

In 2013, the Washington Legislature passed a law enabling anyone wrongfully convicted of a crime to seek compensation from the state. Under the new rule, victims are allotted $50,000 per year of imprisonment, or portion thereof, and 10 percent of any attorney's fees.

Statler and the other two defendants have submitted tort claims of $230,536.53 for the four years, seven months and ten days of imprisonment. So far, though, the state has yet to respond. Recently, the trio filed a lawsuit to pursue their claims in superior court. 

Databases around the country show that wrongful convictions — like Paul Statler's— are not rare. As a result, the Innocence Project Northwest and other programs like it around the country have expanded rapidly; each chapter a measure of the fallibility of our justice system.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Paul Statler as Robert Larson.

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