Clallam County Prosecutor Deborah Kelly said today that she will not seek the death penalty a second time against Darold Stenson, who was sentenced to death more than 18 years ago for the murders of his wife, Denise, and business partner, Frank Hoerner.
In May, the state Supreme Court overturned Stenson’s conviction and ordered a new trial. In their 8-1 ruling, the court said Stenson’s rights were violated because prosecutors “wrongfully suppressed” favorable evidence during his trial.
At the crux of the reversal was possibly tainted gunshot residue found on the jeans Stenson wore on the night in March 1993 when the killings happened at Stenson’s exotic-bird farm, according to defense lawyers.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court said two crucial pieces of evidence linked Stenson to the shootings — gunshot residue on the front pocket of his jeans and blood spatter on the jeans. The spatter was found to be “consistent” with Hoerner’s blood, according to court filings.
But Stenson’s defense lawyers successfully argued that a Clallam County sheriff’s investigator handled the jeans after the slayings, possibly getting residue from his own handgun on them.
Kelly, in a news release issued today, said that she will not seek the death penalty when Stenson is tried again for the slayings.
“The decision was reached after consultation with Frank and Denise’s families, who would like to see the case concluded,” the release said. “While they continue to believe the death penalty is appropriate, they have already waited nineteen years only to see a conviction snatched away at the last minute and been told they must endure the roller-coaster of litigation again. Ultimately, they and I believe the only path to resolution that avoids many similar years of delay lies in taking the death penalty off the table.”
Stenson was an exotic-bird dealer living near Sequim when he allegedly shot his wife at their home in what prosecutors claimed was an effort to collect $800,000 in insurance. He allegedly shot Hoerner to get out from a debt he owed him, and to make it look like Hoerner killed Denise Stenson as part of a love-triangle murder-suicide, prosecutors alleged.
Stenson’s three children were asleep nearby when the slayings occurred.
Stenson and Hoerner had been embroiled in a dispute over the cost of ostriches, which Stenson handled on his 5-acre Dakota Farms, prosecutors claimed.
Hoerner’s widow testified that Stenson persuaded the couple to invest their life savings of $48,000 in ostriches, but the big birds never materialized.