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.
Crosscut archive image.
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.

Crosscut archive image.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors