Judge allows jury to hear mother's statements in Pasco murder case

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 8, 2013 

When Tashia L. Stuart fatally shot her mother in March 2011, she intended to stop the woman from telling others that she believed her daughter was trying to kill her, a judge ruled Thursday.

Judge Cameron Mitchell reversed his earlier ruling and decided jurors can hear of Judy Hebert's suspicions in the weeks before her death.

He based his decision to admit the statements on a recently adopted state law that says a defendant may not kill a witness and then argue that the witness is not available to testify.

Mitchell pointed to evidence that allegedly shows Stuart: tried to get her hands on her mother's will when Hebert was alive; initially told police that nothing was wrong in the home when they responded to a 911 hang-up call; and, when officers came back, claimed she had shot Hebert because her mother had come at her with an ax or hatchet.

"From that evidence, it is clear and convincing to this court that the shooting of Ms. Hebert was done to prevent her from reporting the wrongdoing that Ms. Hebert had discovered that the defendant had been involved in," he said. "Therefore Ms. Stuart, by her actions, has forfeited her right to confront Ms. Hebert."

Stuart, 39, is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances.

A count of attempted first-degree murder was added in January after the defense rejected a plea offer. She has not yet been arraigned on the new charge, which the defense is trying to have tossed out or severed from the original charge so the matters will be tried separately.

Her trial had been scheduled to start Monday.

But when the defense learned that Mitchell will let prosecutors use evidence on blood and ballistics tests, the lawyers said they're not prepared to face a jury because they only got those reports Jan. 17.

The trial was pushed back to April 15. It is expected to last three weeks.

Prosecutors allege Stuart killed her 58-year-old mother on March 3, 2011, after the two women argued about money.

Stuart has claimed self-defense, saying she fired the shot because her mother was going to attack her. Stuart's 7-year-old daughter was in the home at the time.

Stuart's estranged husband, Todd Stuart, was acquitted in late September of plotting with his wife to kill Hebert so the couple could inherit the Pasco woman's property. They had moved in with Hebert in January 2011.

Eleven days before Hebert's death, she was hit on the head by a 32-pound plastic bin that fell from the rafters in her garage.

Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant claims they arranged for Hebert to be in a certain spot in the garage so she'd be severely hurt after Tashia allegedly pushed the bin.

Hebert reportedly told her ex-husband, a friend and four neighbors that she believed it was an attempt to kill her. She said she suspected the Stuarts were switching her medication, court documents said.

Last August, defense attorneys argued the statements were hearsay and not admissible. Mitchell then agreed, ruling that only limited statements Hebert made to one neighbor to show her state of mind could be introduced at the trial because Tashia Stuart was claiming self-defense.

Then in December, Sant asked the judge to reconsider his earlier ruling based on the "forfeiture of wrongdoing" doctrine.

That law applies because Stuart killed her mother as Hebert was calling 911 to report that her daughter had broken into her safe and stolen from her, Sant argued. Because Hebert was silenced, the state has to rely on statements the victim made to people in the days before her death "about all the concerns and fears she had in her life," he said.

Stuart's defense lawyers said that allowing Hebert's statements violates Stuart's constitutional right to confront her accuser.

Mitchell took several weeks to consider the arguments and review case law. In his ruling Thursday, Mitchell said that Stuart's "right to confrontation was extinguished by that wrongdoing."

Also Thursday, Mitchell denied a defense motion to dismiss because there was no showing of mismanagement by the prosecutor.

Lawyers Peter Connick and Bob Thompson have blamed Sant and the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for failing to turn over reports and evidence and "not moving with any type of sense of urgency." The defense has said their expert needs at least 60 days to review the files and do his own tests.

"I don't know what happened with the WSP Crime Lab in this case. I don't know what their problem is, but they won't give things up," Connick said.

The Seattle attorney said he was advised when he came on the case that if he couldn't work an October 2012 trial date into his schedule, he wouldn't be allowed to take the contract.

"We are way past that, and the trial court has given this state so much rope that it's time that they hang by it," Connick said.

The judge said the delays by the crime lab weren't necessarily within control of the prosecutor's office.

Sant had explained that when he checked out the evidence for Todd Stuart's trial last fall, it was returned to the back of the line for testing. He said he can't tell the crime lab that his case has priority over all other Washington cases the lab is handling.

However, Mitchell questioned why it took until early January -- almost two years into the case -- for prosecutors to request testing on fiber evidence.

Sant argued that he had believed all along the testing of clothing and carpeting would be included with the other orders, and it's only when he questioned an official in January about the fibers that he was told it had to be done at a different division of the lab. Sant said he then learned the fiber testing needed a separate request.

The judge decided the fiber evidence and accompanying report can't be used in trial because "that was not timely done" since the defense wasn't given adequate time to prepare.

Stuart is being held in the Franklin County jail on $500,000 bail.

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