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Stephen Comstock

Other Nevada Exonerations
In August 2003, a police detective in Reno, Nevada, was reviewing transactions at a pawnshop when he spotted an unusual ring, commemorating a 1992 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics wrestling championship. The ring was engraved with the number “150” and the name “Street.”

The pawn ticket bore the name of 43-year-old Stephen Comstock, a Reno resident whom the detective was monitoring under a repeat offender program. Surveillance video confirmed that Comstock had pawned the ring for $60.

The detective tracked down Randy Street, who confirmed that in 1992 while at Montana State University—Northern, he won a NAIA wrestling championship in the 150-pound weight class. Street had been a three-time state wrestling champion in high school in Butte, Montana.

Comstock lived near Street’s apartment complex and did maintenance work there. Questioned by police, Comstock first said he could not remember if he pawned the ring, but then admitted he had pawned it for a friend, Danny Carter, because Carter did not have identification required to complete such a transaction. Comstock said he gave Carter the $60 and Carter gave him a carton of cigarettes for pawning the ring.

Comstock also told police that he had suspected the ring might be stolen because Carter was a known burglar. But then he backtracked and said that Carter told him that the ring had belonged to Carter’s father. In fact, the initials “D.C.” were scratched lightly inside the ring.

Comstock was indicted by a Washoe County grand jury in December 2003. He went to trial in March 2004. Street testified that he had never loaned the ring to anyone, that it never fell off by accident and that he only wore it once or twice a month. Street told the jury that while he once misplaced the ring inside his apartment, he did not remember ever losing it outside. In fact, Street said that when the detective called him, he didn’t know it was missing. Street said he thought it was in its usual place—a seashell in his apartment—and that thought he had seen it there a couple of weeks before the detective called to report its discovery in the pawnshop. Street also testified that Comstock, as the maintenance worker, had been in his apartment on a prior occasion.

The defense called Sharon Taylor, Comstock’s ex-girlfriend, who also worked as a housekeeper at the apartment complex where Street lived. Taylor testified she found the ring in a flower bed outside the laundry room at the complex and she took it home. Taylor told the jury that Carter visited her apartment not long after and she let Carter take the ring when he left.

Perry Harring testified that he accompanied Comstock to the pawnshop and then drove him to Carter so Comstock could give Carter the $60 from the pawnshop. Comstock’s lawyer sought to call Carter to the witness stand, but Carter declined to testify until he could talk to his lawyer. When the defense decided not to call Carter after all, the prosecution called him as a rebuttal witness and he testified that he had never seen the ring.

On March 23, 2004, the jury convicted Comstock of possession of stolen property. Prior to sentencing, Comstock’s lawyer was given a copy of the presentence report prepared by the probation office. Attached to the report was a victim impact statement written by Street.

Instead of explaining how he had been affected by the loss of the ring, Street wrote: “I am not convinced that my ring was stolen. To have a clear conscience in this matter, I have to bring up the possibility that I may have placed my ring on the ground while outside my apartment washing my motorcycle. The ring is large & I can remember a time prior to the ring turning up missing that I took it off for fear of scratching the paint or chrome.”

Street said that he placed it “either on the ground or on the air conditioner outside & I don’t remember putting it back on. The defense attorney (for Comstock) kept asking if I may have dropped it out of my pants pocket while I did laundry.” Street added that he had “volunteered this info” to the detective and the prosecutor before the trial. “I’d hate to see this gentleman sentenced for possession of stolen property if it was out of my ignorance of misplacing it. Please take this into consideration. He’s probably served enough time for not asking nearby tenants if they were missing the ring. I don’t believe my apartment was broken into if all they stole was a ring.” He ended the statement with a note marked with a large asterisk for emphasis: “Please make sure that the judge reads this!”

Comstock’s attorney filed a motion for a new trial based on the letter and failure of the prosecution to disclose Street’s statement prior to trial. The motion was denied and Comstock was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison.

After his appeal was denied by the Nevada Supreme Court and a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus was denied as well, Comstock filed a handwritten federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Assistant Federal Defender Ryan Norwood was appointed to handle the petition. In 2014, U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks denied the petition, ruling that the information volunteered by Street would not have changed the jury’s verdict if Comstock’s lawyer had known about it at trial. By then, Comstock had been released on parole in October 2013. And Street had died in July 2012.

In May 2015, the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed and granted the habeas petition. The Appeals Court ruled that Street’s statement was favorable to Comstock and should have been disclosed by the prosecution.

“Instead of groping blindly at hypothetical laundry mishaps or bar bets gone wrong, (Comstock’s) counsel could have deployed Street’s specific recollection of an occasion when he removed his ring, placed it on the ground or an air conditioner outside, and did not recall putting it back on,” the court said.

The appeals court added that “this was not a close call—the key witness had reasonable doubts about whether a crime occurred, and the prosecution should have shared the recollections that formed the basis of those doubts with the defense.” The case was sent back to Washoe County for a possible retrial.

On July 28, 2015, the prosecution dismissed the charge and the trial judge apologized to Comstock.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 8/2/2015
Most Serious Crime:Possession of Stolen Property
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2003
Sentence:10 to 25 years
Age at the date of reported crime:43
Contributing Factors:Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No