In April 2008, 17-year-old Matthew Dunham was charged with a robbery in Spokane County, Washington. Dunham decided to help the police in order to reduce his sentence. He told them about other robberies that he and others committed and in May 2008, drove around with detectives and pointed out places where he and four other men had committed robberies.
In June 2008, Dunham was charged along with Anthony Kongjunchi, 21-year-old Paul E. Statler, 21-year-old Tyler W. Gassman
and 27-year-old Robert E. Larson
with a robbery and drive-by shooting at about 10 p.m. on April 15, 2008, in Spokane Valley, Washington. The crimes involved a rip-off of three men who were attempting to buy Oxycontin for $4,000. Based on Dunham’s statement Statler, Gassman and Larson were also charged with three other robberies.
Dunham pled guilty and received a sentence of less than 18 months in juvenile detention, although he had been facing as much as 40 years in adult prison. Kongjunchi also pled guilty.
By 2009, as the case against Statler, Gassman and Larson stemming from the April 15 robbery neared trial, one of the other three robbery cases against them had been dismissed. Juries later acquitted them of the two other crimes.
Prior to their trial for the April 15 crime, Kongjunchi told defense lawyers that Statler, Gassman and Larson were not involved. However, Kongjunchi said that if called as a witness, he would claim his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refuse to testify. As a result, Kongjunchi was not called by the defense.
The case against Statler, Gassman and Larson was set for trial in January 2009, but on the first day of trial, the prosecution moved to amend the charges to say the crime occurred on April 17, 2008, not April 15. By that time, Larson’s attorney had found Larson’s employment records showing that he was at work at the time of the crime on April 15. Over the objections of defense attorneys, the trial judge continued the case for a month to allow the defense an opportunity to investigate. The judge also fined the prosecution $8,000 for the late amendment. (The fine was later reduced on appeal to $2,000 and ultimately vacated by the Washington Supreme Court.)
Statler, Gassman and Larson finally went on trial in February 2009 in Spokane County Superior Court.
Dunham testified that he and Kongjunchi picked up Gassman, Statler and Larson and drove them to a pre-arranged meeting place where Clifford Berger, Eric Weskamp and Kyle Williams planned to buy a quantity of Oxycontin for $4,000.
Dunham testified that as Weskamp and another man approached the vehicle, Gassman, Larson and Statler, whose faces were covered with red bandanas, robbed them of the $4,000 and fled in the vehicle. Weskamp was beaten during the attack. When Williams and Berger gave chase in a car, Dunham said, Statler fired shots at the vehicle with a shotgun. Dunham said he was 100 percent sure that Statler, Gassman and Larson took part in the robbery.
The victims of the robbery testified and none were able to identify Statler, Gassman or Larson as the attackers, although all identified Dunham and Kongjunchi as participants.
The prosecution introduced a shotgun into evidence that had been found at Statler’s house.
Kyle Williams testified that he knew the robbery had occurred on April 17 based on an examination of his phone records.
The defense introduced Larson’s timecard from work showing he was at work on the nights of April 15, 16 and 18 at the time the crime occurred. Statler introduced evidence that he was on probation for another unrelated crime and that he was required to check in at 10 p.m. The records showed he was home at that time every day during the month of April 2008.
On February 17, 2009, a jury convicted Gassman, Statler and Larson. Gassman was sentenced to 26 years in prison, Larson was sentenced to 20 years and Statler was sentenced to 42 years.
After the convictions were upheld on appeal, lawyers for the Innocence Project Northwest at the University of Washington began investigating the case. The lawyers discovered that Weskamp testified at the trial that he went to work the day after the crime, but left early due to his injuries, but his work records showed he left early on April 16—not April 18, the day after the crime was alleged to have occurred.
The Innocence Project Northwest lawyers also discovered phone records showing that Dunham had spoken with one of the victims of the robbery before and after the crime. In addition, Kongjunchi gave a sworn statement saying that Gassman, Statler and Larson were not involved in the crime.
In December 2012, Superior Court Judge Michael Price vacated the convictions of Gassman, Statler and Larson and ordered a new trial. The judge criticized their trial attorneys for failing to assemble the phone and work records that showed their innocence. And the judge said that the lawyers should have called Kongjunchi at the trial: because he had pled guilty to the robbery, and thereby admitted that he did it, he could no longer assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination for that crime. The defendants were released on personal recognizance bonds pending a second trial.
On June 3, 2013, the prosecution dismissed the case against Larson, but said it would go forward with a trial for Gassman and Statler.
Innocence Project Northwest attorneys filed a motion seeking to dismiss the case against Gassman and Statler, arguing that the prosecution would be knowingly introducing false testimony by sticking to April 17 as the date of the crime and by presenting Dunham as a witness even though he had previously testified that he committed the crime with Larson, Gassman and Statler.
On July 23, before the defense motion was heard, the prosecution moved to dismiss the charges against Statler and Gassman. The judge granted the motion and entered an order dismissing all remaining charges on July 24. All three defendants filed for compensation from the state in 2014. All three were denied compensation in February 2015.
– Maurice Possley