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Updated Wednesday, December 19, 2012 at 08:16 PM

Death penalty dropped in retrial for '93 Clallam County slayings

By Jennifer Sullivan
Seattle Times staff reporter

Darold Stenson, who has spent more than 18 years on Washington state's death row, will not face the death penalty when he is retried for the 1993 slayings of his wife and business partner.

Deborah Kelly, Clallam County prosecutor, said Wednesday she made the decision after consulting with the victims' families, "who would like to see the case concluded."

"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," Kelly wrote in a news release. "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, now 60, was an exotic-bird dealer living near Sequim when he allegedly shot his wife, Denise, and Frank Hoerner at the couple's home on March 25, 1993, in what prosecutors claim was an effort to collect $800,000 in insurance on his wife. 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 allege.

A Clallam County Superior Court jury deliberated for two days before convicting Stenson in August 1994 of the two slayings. He was subsequently sentenced to death.

In May of this year, the state Supreme Court overturned Stenson's conviction and ordered a new trial, determining that 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 Stenson's jeans after the slayings, according to defense lawyers.

In its 8-1 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.

At the time of the slayings, Stenson and Hoerner had been embroiled in a dispute over the cost of ostriches, which Stenson handled on his 5-acre exotic-bird farm, prosecutors claim.

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.

Sherilyn Peterson, who is part of Stenson's defense team, said Kelly made "the correct decision" in opting to not seek the death penalty.

"The defense looks forward to proving Mr. Stenson's innocence," she said.

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294, or jensullivan@seattletimes.com On Twitter @SeattleSullivan


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