New trial ordered for death row inmate Darold Stenson

Stenson was convicted of murdering his wife and business partner in the 1990s.

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The Washington state Supreme Court has reversed the conviction and death sentence of a longtime death row inmate and called for a new trial in his double-murder case.

On an 8-1 ruling today, the high court ruled that Darold Stenson's rights were violated because the state "wrongfully suppressed" from the defense photographs that raised questions about mishandling of evidence as well as an FBI file.

The high court's ruling concerns two appeals filed in 2009, one by Stenson himself and one by his attorneys.

Stenson, who is now 59, was convicted in 1994 of shooting his wife, Denise Stenson, and a business partner, Frank Hoerner, then attempting to cover up the crimes by making them appear as a murder-suicide. The murders occurred in 1993 at Stenson's exotic bird farm in Clallam County.

Prosecutors charged that Stenson committed the crimes to collect on his wife's life insurance policy as well as avoid the discovery that he had misspent much of $50,000 Hoerner had given him to buy ostriches.

In their appeals, Stenson and his attorneys claimed the information and photographs that came to light in 2009 had been withheld by prosecutors during Stenson's trial.

The information consisted of bench notes and data from the FBI laboratory and photographs that showed Stenson's pants being handled by an ungloved law enforcement officer prior to the trouser pockets being tested for gunshot residue.

Stenson and his attorneys argued the notes and photos could have been used to show that findings of gunshot residue in one of the trouser pockets should have not been allowed as evidence at his trial. The notes and photos could have also been used to cast doubt on the credibility of investigators.

In their ruling, the eight justices - including two pro tem members - disagreed with an opinion issued by Clallam County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Williams, who presided over Stenson's 1994 trial. Williams wrote that although the new evidence could have been used to discredit the gunshot residue findings, it would not have changed the outcome of the trial.

The high court ruled that Stenson's rights were violated because the prosecution had access to the evidence at the time of trial, but didn't provide the information to Stenson's attorney until 2009.

Justice James J. Johnson dissented from the majority ruling, saying Stenson's conviction should be upheld. He wrote "that the jury verdict was fair and based on overwhelming evidence" and the non-disclosed evidence doesn't rise to the level of prejudice.

Stenson had been the second-longest serving inmate on Washington state's death row. The longest-serving inmate is Jonathan L. Gentry, 56, who was sentenced to death in 1991. All inmates sentenced to death are held at the Washington State Penitentiary where executions are carried out.

The last person executed in Washington was Cal Coburn Brown, who was put to death by lethal injection in 2010 for the rape, torture and murder of 22-year-old Holly Washa in 1993.

The Associated Press and U-B reporter Terry McConn contributed to this report.

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