Man acquitted, freed from jail in Pasco attempted murder trial

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 28, 2012 

Todd D. Stuart walked out of jail a free man Thursday afternoon, one hour after a Franklin County jury returned "not guilty" verdicts in the 2011 death of his mother-in-law.

After being locked up in the county facility for 218 days, Stuart was overcome with emotion in the courtroom as reality set in. He hugged his Seattle attorney, Jeffery Robinson, then sat in his chair, removed his eyeglasses and sobbed into a tissue.

His imminent freedom became official when Robinson signed a "judgment of acquittal" that confirmed the jury's findings on one count each of attempted first-degree murder and first-degree conspiracy to commit murder.

Stuart, 49, was accused of devising a plan with his wife to kill her mother, Judy Hebert, so the couple could inherit her property. He denied any involvement in a February 2011 incident that left Hebert with a severe neck injury or her eventual death two weeks later on March 3, 2011.

Stuart was on his way to California and not in the Salmon Drive home when Hebert was killed. His estranged wife, Tashia, is charged with her mother's fatal shooting.

As Stuart and Robinson waited in court Thursday for the document that would assure his quick release, a Herald reporter asked if Stuart wanted to comment on the verdicts.

"No, he's not going to say anything," Robinson said for his client.

Minutes earlier, the lawyer told the media they were "extremely grateful" for the jury's verdicts.

"We believe it was the absolute right and correct verdict. But there is no joy here," Robinson added. "There is a sense of relief that an innocent man has not been convicted for something he didn't do. But there is a woman who has died. There is a family that's broken. So nobody is walking out of here with a smile on their face."

This is the first case Prosecutor Shawn Sant has taken to trial since he assumed office in January 2011. Deputy Prosecutor Dave Corkrum assisted.

Sant told the Herald he was not disappointed with the result even though it didn't go in his favor. He was confident he could get a conviction, but also knew it was going to be a tough case.

"Something that I value with our justice system is some cases are such that you have to defer to a jury," he said as he waited to talk with jurors. "This was a serious enough case that we simply couldn't not move forward. I felt we should push forward to trial."

Sant was upset that he couldn't introduce some of the evidence to the jury because of pretrial rulings by Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell, but recognized the panel thoroughly deliberated the case.

"This was a circumstantial case with limited direct evidence, and clearly we had no -- as to this co-defendant -- we had no eyewitnesses, so we knew from the beginning that this would make it a challenge," he said. "We don't take easy cases to trial and will continue to do our work."

The trial started Sept. 10 with jury selection. The first testimony was given Sept. 20, and the case went to the jury Wednesday afternoon.

Jurors spent about 51/2 hours deliberating Wednesday and Thursday before announcing at 2:20 p.m. that they'd reached a decision. They were brought into the courtroom at 2:54 p.m. so a clerk could read the verdicts. By 4 p.m., Stuart had collected his personal belongings and left the jail.

Seven jurors sat down to talk with the Herald under the agreement that they remain anonymous.

They acknowledged that "it was difficult to come to this decision," but for them it all was in the state's evidence -- or really the lack of evidence to prove Stuart helped plot Hebert's death.

"It's like you're trying to put a puzzle together, and we couldn't find the pieces," one man said.

"It's just a reasonable doubt. There was a reasonable doubt there with the evidence we had in this room," another man said.

Once they had the case Wednesday, the group didn't take a vote but "felt it out" to see what everyone was thinking. It was more than an hour before the 250 items in evidence were taken back to the jury room, and by then, they decided they didn't really have the time or resources to delve into intense discussions, so they recessed for the day.

A male juror said of Wednesday, "I was just mentally exhausted when I got home."

They started fresh Thursday and "went through everything with a fine-tooth comb," viewing each piece of evidence as they discussed the allegations.

The group said it deliberated with the thought that Stuart was innocent until proven guilty -- as Robinson had repeated must be done -- but one woman admitted she has her reservations and may have returned a different verdict.

"But did the state, with the evidence we had, did it prove he was guilty?" she asked.

Another juror said for the first day or two, the panel was left wondering just who was on trial because a majority of the evidence relates to Tashia Stuart's case.

Tashia Stuart, 39, faces trial Oct. 24 on one count of first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances. She has claimed self-defense and said her mother came at her with an ax.

Hebert, 58, was shot twice inside her Salmon Drive home. Her death came 11 days after she was hit on the head by a 31.8-pound plastic bin that fell from the rafters in her garage.

Sant claimed Todd and Tashia Stuart arranged for Hebert to be in a certain spot in the garage so she would be severely hurt after Tashia allegedly pushed the bin. Sant told jurors in Todd Stuart's trial that the conspiracy to kill Hebert started long before the garage incident.

The couple, along with Tashia's 7-year-old daughter, moved into Hebert's Pasco home in January 2011.

Prosecutors claimed Todd Stuart went to California to visit family a couple days before Hebert was killed with the plan that Tashia Stuart would finish off her mother and say she was defending herself. Todd Stuart then would return to the Tri-Cities to be with his wife, Sant said.

Robinson painted a different picture for the jury in trial, saying his client left because his marriage was falling apart.

Robinson said there were accusations of infidelity and Tashia Stuart was "pursuing her own desires," not conspiring with her husband, because she wanted him out of Hebert's will.

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