Charges have been officially dismissed against three Spokane Valley men who were featured in a 2010 Inlander report titled "Reasonable Doubt," which outlined a series of issues with the police investigation.
In December, a judge, considering new evidence and criticizing the men’s attorneys, ordered a new trial and set free the men: Tyler Gassman (pictured), Paul Statler and Robert Larson. However, rather than retry the case, prosecutors moved to drop it this week.
“These cases poignantly demonstrate the need for our system to reexamine its use of informant testimony,” said Jacqueline McMurtrie, the Director of the Innocence Project Northwest, in a statement. “Paul, Tyler and Robert are innocent men who spent nearly five years in prison based solely on the word of an informant who got an extraordinary deal — one ‘too good to be true’ — for his testimony.”
The testimony of Matt Dunham, prosecutors’ central witness, was the only evidence tying the men to a robbery of drug dealers in April 2008. Dunham got an exceptionally light sentence in exchange for testifying.
Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, has written extensively about snitches and their use by law enforcement, including her 2009 book, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.
Snitches are notoriously unreliable. Natapoff points to the 2004 study by Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions that showed that snitches are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in capital cases; about 46 percent of those bad verdicts can be traced to false snitch testimony.
Still, the use of snitches by police has skyrocketed in recent decades, especially in drug cases, Natapoff says. For one, they are cheap; police can cut deals with snitches, rather than spend resources on longer, more thorough investigations. “You can make a snitch for free,” Natapoff says.
But snitching accomplices have been shown to be so unreliable, in fact, that a dozen or so states now require their testimony to be corroborated by some other evidence. Washington is not one of those states, and efforts in light of this case — driven largely by Statler's father, Duane — have come up short.