Contact: Elizabeth Coplan
University of Washington School of Law



Spokane Judge Overturns Convictions of Three Men Based on New Evidence Casting Doubt on the Credibility of an Informant Witness

(December 16, 2012; Spokane, WA) -- Tyler Gassman, Robert Larson and Paul Statler will spend their first Christmas in four years at home, after Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price vacated their 2009 convictions for robbery, assault and drive-by shooting and ordered the men’s immediate release. Judge Price ruled that the volume of evidence presented by post-conviction counsel raised serious doubts about the original jury’s verdict. Paul Statler was represented by attorneys M. Fernanda Torres and Jacqueline McMurtrie, and law students Allison Sherrill (‘12) and Michael Sprangers (‘12) of the Innocence Project Northwest; Tyler Gassman by Allen D. Clark of Baetz/Lamka/Clark LLP; and Robert Larson by Matthew J. Zuchetto (’02) of The Scott Law Group, P.S.

“We’re relieved that the court recognized the injustice that these young men faced and overturned their convictions based on new evidence calling into the question the informant witness’ credibility,” said McMurtrie, the Director of the Innocence Project Northwest. “We’re hopeful that the prosecution will recognize that this case never should have been tried in the first place and will dismiss the charges.”

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 formed the basis of yesterday’s proceedings and resulted in prison sentences of about 42 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 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 established Weskamp worked approximately 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day, Monday, April 14, 2008 through Friday, April 18, 2008 except Wednesday April 16. On April 16th, Weskamp left work at 1:11 p.m. Based on the work records, the date of the crime was April 15, as initially charged, and not April 17 as the State alleged at trial. Judge Price ruled that this one piece of evidence alone was sufficient to establish the strong possibility that the outcome of the trial would have been different.

Judge Price also cited to other evidence provided by post-conviction counsel further calling Dunham’s credibility into question. 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.”

Post-conviction counsel were thrilled with Judge Price’s decision to vacate the convictions and order their clients’ release. Zuchetto states that his firm “was very excited and proud to be involved with such important work. Personally, yesterday was one of the most rewarding days of my legal career.”

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