In 2009, three Washington state men (Paul Statler, Tyler Gassman, and Robert Larson) were convicted for robbery, assault and drive-by shooting but Superior Court Judge Michael Price has ruled that all three received ineffective assistance of counsel and vacated their convictions. “Mr. Larson, Mr. Gassman and Mr. Statler were entitled to a fair trial and effective counsel,” Price said. “One cannot go on without the other. Here the counsel failed … to discover evidence critical to rebutting the state’s case.”
This case illustrates how several flaws in the criminal justice system can lead to a three men being incarcerated for a crime they did not commit. A drug house was robbed on April 15, 2008. From the beginning, the prosecution based their case almost exclusively on the testimony of 17-year old Matthew Dunham, who had plead guilty to a home invasion robbery of two other drug dealers. Dunham said he was involved in the robbery and implicated Larson, Gassman, and Statler as committing the crime with him. In return, Dunham would face charges as a juvenile and not an adult.
The history of jailhouse snitches and wrongful convictions has shown how prosecutors fail to develop corroborating information once a jailhouse snitch has agreed to testify. In this case, as noted by the amicus brief filed by the Innocence Network, the lead detective testified that he had no other evidence other than Dunham. Also, none of the victims were able to identify Statler.
Another major issue soon came along to raise questions about the conviction. Dunham’s co-defendant, Anthony Kongchunji, wanted to tell the court that he and Dunham had set up Statler and the others to take the fall. The amicus brief states that ”The letter, written to Statler’s father, stated that Dunham’s statement was “all lies” and that Statler had not been involved in any of the robberies. Kongchungji admitted in the letter to being one of the perpetrators, and named Dunham, Larry Dunham (Dunham’s brother) and Larry Smith (their friend) as co-perpetrators.”
Furthermore, Kongchunhji felt he could not come forward. “I thought that I should let you know that Paul, Tyler and Robert were not involved with any of the alleged incidents … because I was involved,” Kongchunji wrote. “The prosecution has threatened me with more charges if I was to get on the stand and tell my story.”
Without Kongchunji’s statements, all three were convicted. His letter to Statler’s father was also insufficient. The Innocence Project Northwest soon became involved and found a key piece of evidence that was never investigated by trial counsel – phone records. Dunham claimed he was involved in the crime and did not know any of the victims. However, phone records revealed that Dunham had called one of the victims before and after the robbery. “When one party is the perpetrator and one is the victim, it doesn’t make any sense that they would be communicating before and after the crime,” Judge Price said. “Defense counsel didn’t know this because they didn’t ask about it.” Based on this new evidence and trial counsel’s failure to investigate, the convictions were vacated. All three men are expected to be released soon.
In many cases, false jailhouse snitch testimony is difficult to rebut. However, in this case, trial counsel could have found evidence that Dunham was lying. Regardless, this case shows how corroborating evidence should be required whenever informant or snitch testimony is involved, especially when incentives are used (such as reduced or lighter sentences). In 2011, California became the latest state to require such evidence (“A jury or judge may not convict a defendant, find a special circumstance true, or use a fact in aggravation based on the uncorroborated testimony of an in-custody informant.”). Hopefully all states will continue to enact similar laws to prevent wrongful convictions.