(CN) – A death-row inmate’s murder conviction was overturned Thursday after the state Supreme Court ruled the prosecution “wrongfully suppressed” evidence, including a picture of a county detective wearing the defendant’s jeans.
Prosecutors used the jeans, which were spattered with blood and contained gunshot residue in the pocket, as a key piece of evidence to convict Darold Stenson of murdering his wife Denise and his business partner Frank Hoerner.
Prosecutors say Stenson attempted to make the killings look like a murder-suicide. Investigators later found that Hoerner had not committed suicide, but had been “beaten unconscious” and dragged from Stenson’s driveway into the house, where he was shot in the head. Denise Stenson was found shot in bed.
The state claims Stenson wanted to collect his wife’s life insurance policy and killed Hoerner because he owed Hoerner money.
Stenson was sentenced to death in 1994 for the 1993 slayings. The state had access to the photographs and an FBI file at the time of trial, but did not provide the evidence to Stenson’s attorneys until 2009.
In an 8-1 decision, the court said Stenson should get a new trial because his Brady rights were violated. In Brady v Maryland, the Supreme Court found that prosecutors violate a defendant’s constitutional rights by not turning over evidence that could prove a person’s innocence.
The court said the two pieces of evidence — gunshot residue found inside the right front pocket of the jeans Stenson was wearing when the officers arrived at his house and Hoerner’s blood spattered on the front of those jeans — were the only forensic evidence linking Hoerner to the shootings and the remainder of evidence was “largely circumstantial.”
Photographs showing a detective on the case wearing Stenson’s jeans with an ungloved hand and with the right pocket turned out and an FBI file that indicated an agent who testified did not actually perform a gunshot residue test, were not properly disclosed to the defense.
“Had the FBI file and photographs been properly disclosed here, Stenson’s counsel would have been able to demonstrate to the jury that a key exhibit in the case Stenson’s jeans — had been seriously mishandled and compromised by law enforcement investigators. It is also likely that exposure of the State’s mishandling of the jeans with regard to GSR testing would have led to further inquiry by Stenson’s counsel into possible corruption of the blood spatter evidence,” according to the ruling written by Justice Pro Tem Gerry Alexander for the majority.
The court found the newly discovered evidence “undermines confidence in the jury verdict” and reversed the convictions and death sentence and ordered a new trial.
Justice James M. Johnson dissented, saying the court failed to consider the “mountain of other evidence linking Stenson to the crime” and that there was never another viable suspect. Stenson’s has been on death row for eighteen years and this was his sixth appeal to his death sentence. Courts have stayed his execution three times.