Prosecutor won’t seek death in Stenson retrial

PORT ANGELES (AP) — The owner of an exotic bird farm whose death sentence and conviction for murdering his wife and another man were overturned by the state Supreme Court will not face the death penalty at his new trial, a prosecutor announced Wednesday.

Darold Stenson was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to death for the slaying of his wife, Denise, and business partner, Frank Hoerner, at Stenson’s bird farm.

The victims’ families still believe the death penalty is appropriate, but after 19 years they just want to see the case concluded, Clallam County Prosecutor Deborah Kelly said in a statement. The state Supreme Court in May ordered a new trial for Stenson, saying prosecutors withheld evidence from defense attorneys.

At the time, Kelly said she would consult with the families about whether to seek the death penalty a second time.

]Stenson is being held without bail on charges of aggravated murder. His lawyer for the appeal, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, was elected to the state Supreme Court last month.

On an early spring morning in 1993, Stenson called 911 from the farm on Washington’s Olympic peninsula to report that his business partner had just shot Stenson’s wife and himself.

Two weeks later, Stenson was arrested and charged with murder. Investigators claimed he committed the killings to collect a $400,000 life insurance policy on his wife and to silence Hoerner, an unhappy investor who wanted his money back — all while his three young children slept upstairs.

Stenson has always maintained his innocence. He filed multiple appeals to his death sentence, and courts stayed his execution three times, most recently in 2008 when he was less than two weeks from a scheduled execution.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court overturned his conviction, ruling that his rights were violated because the state “wrongfully suppressed” photographs that raised questions about mishandling of evidence, as well as an FBI file that wasn’t provided to the defense until 2009.

The high court noted that most of the evidence provided at trial was largely circumstantial. The exceptions were gunshot residue found inside the front pocket of the jeans Stenson was wearing when officers arrived, and blood spatter on the front of those jeans consistent with Hoerner’s blood protein profile.

Both of those pieces of evidence were at the heart of Stenson’s appeal.

At issue were photographs showing a sheriff’s detective with ungloved hands wearing Stenson’s jeans with the right pocket turned out, and an FBI file indicating an agent who testified did not perform a gunshot residue test, which the court said was implied at the trial.

Stenson claimed he kneeled next to Hoerner’s body, accounting for the blood on the jeans.