By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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In two rulings Wednesday that favored the prosecution, Clallam County Superior Court Judge S. Brooke Taylor denied a motion by Stenson's defense team to dismiss two charges of aggravated first-degree murder against the former Sequim-area resident and granted county Prosecuting Attorney Deb Kelly's motion for a continuance to give her more time to prepare for the trial.
Taylor moved the date of the trial, which will be held in Kitsap County, from July 8 to Sept. 16, when jury selection will begin, with testimony expected to start Sept. 23.
The motions for a continuance and dismissal were among several Taylor heard in the daylong hearing, which was continued to July 10 at 10 a.m.
Attorney Sherilyn Peterson, representing Stenson, alleged “misconduct” on the part of the authorities and argued that key evidence, such as Stenson's bloody pants, had been lost or mishandled.
The clothing allegedly connects Stenson to the deaths and were worn by a county sheriff's detective after the 1993 crimes were committed at Stenson's Kane Lane exotic bird farm.
Stenson, 60, was convicted in 1994 and served time on death row until the conviction was overturned in May 2012 by the state Supreme Court, which said the clothing was key forensic evidence that tied Stenson to the murders of his wife, Denise, and his business partner, Frank Hoerner.
Peterson also said authorities failed to interview others who may have been tied to the shooting deaths.
Taylor ruled that any missteps did not rise to the level of prompting a dismissal of the charges.
“This was not a perfect investigation,” Taylor said.
“But it is not a perfect world, and nobody gets a perfect trial, and this case is far more complex than most.”
Taylor said Stenson's defense team relied on case law that showed that “actual misconduct” led to other cases being dismissed.
That wasn't the case with Stenson's case, he said.
“The Prosecuting Attorney's Office has done its level best to avoid mismanagement and misconduct,” Taylor said.
The state Supreme Court had also had, in effect, imposed severe sanctions on the prosecution by having Stenson's convictions overturned and the death penalty that Stenson had faced abrogated.
Kelly is now seeking a life prison term for Stenson instead of the death penalty that put him on death row for nearly two decades.
“Dismissal is too severe a sanction,” Taylor said.
In arguing for a continuance, Kelly said that since Stenson's convictions were overturned, she has lost four working months due to a family member's medical condition while the defense has “papered me to death” with requests for information.
In addition, Stenson had far more resources than she did to prosecute the case, adding that after 20 years, witnesses and others connected to the original trial were difficult to find, had died or were refusing to cooperate.
Attorney Roger Hunko, representing Stenson, said Stenson, who is in the Clallam County jail on $1 million bail, had been incarcerated for 243 months “for a crime he did not commit, including 19 years on death row in the worst kind of conditions.”
“We've been working very hard to get the case done by July 8,” he said.
But Taylor said a continuance must be granted if it is “required in the administration of justice” and does not “substantially prejudice” Stenson when his case goes to trial.
The case had generated 100 boxes of material, Taylor said.
Add to that the changes in forensic science over 20 years and factors cited by Kelly, and the continuance must be granted, Taylor said.
“There is no conceivable way the prosecuting attorney can devote the same amount of time to this case” as Stenson's defense team, Taylor said.
“There has to be a level playing field.
“The state is entitled to a fair trial as well as the people of this county that Ms. Kelly represents.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.