As of May 10, there is one less person on Washington’s death row. The Washington Supreme Court’s overturning of Darold Stenson’s murder conviction provides a vital lesson about the flaws of our system of capital punishment: Even convictions and death sentences that may appear to be supported by strong evidence actually have major elements of doubt, and it takes time to discover the problems.
The state’s high court ruled 8-1 that Darold Stenson’s death penalty and conviction must be reversed and remanded for a new trial. Stenson was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1994 deaths of his wife and business partner. He asserted that the business partner was responsible for the deaths. Significant pieces of evidence used to convict Stenson were photographs, gunshot residue, and blood spatter evidence and expert analysis of those things.
At Stenson’s trial, the Clallam County prosecutor’s office failed to disclose to his lawyer information from the FBI file about that evidence which might have been helpful to his defense. The potentially favorable evidence came to light 18 years later when Stenson’s appellate attorneys raised an actual innocence claim. In investigating the claim, they discovered the previously withheld evidence.
In striking language, the Court explained that a serious constitutional violation had occurred and could not be overlooked, as this meant that the defendant did not have the necessary full benefit of due process protections.
Stenson, in our judgment, has met his burden of showing that there is a reasonable probability that, had the FBI file and photographs been disclosed to the defense, the result of his trial would have been different. Because we believe the newly discovered evidence undermines confidence in the jury verdict, we reverse Stenson's convictions and death sentence and remand for a new trial. We conclude that the trial court correctly found that the FBI file and photographs are favorable to Stenson and that the evidence was wrongfully suppressed by the State. We conclude, as a matter of law, that the suppression of the photographs and FBI file prejudiced Stenson.
Stenson might well have been executed and it would have been too late to correct the constitutional error that occurred. Too often in Washington and around the country, death sentences have been obtained based on some form of legal error. In this case, vigorous advocacy by Stenson’s defense team brought injustice to light, but in too many cases that does not happen.
What can be done? The ACLU is working with the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in the Safe and Just Alternatives Campaign. It seeks to end the death penalty in our state and replace it with a sentence of life in prison without parole. Connecticut recently became the latest state to end capital punishment, recognizing that our criminal justice system is far from perfect and the State should not take a life when safe and just alternatives are available. To learn how to get involved in the campaign in Washington state, see sjawa.org.
The full opinion can be found here.