Stuart's lawyers want alleged suspicions excluded from murder trial

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldMay 1, 2013 

Tashia Stuart's attorneys are asking the Washington State Court of Appeals to overturn a ruling that would allow jurors to hear her mother's alleged suspicions that Stuart was trying to kill her.

Wednesday an appeals court commissioner, Joyce McCown of Spokane, heard arguments about whether the question should be heard by an appeals court panel. She made no ruling, saying she needed time to study and research the issue.

Stuart, 39, fatally shot her mother in March 2011 in their Pasco home and is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances. She is arguing self-defense.

In February, Judge Cameron Mitchell ruled that he would allow testimony about comments the prosecution says her mother, Judy Hebert, made to friends and neighbors in the weeks before she died.

He based his decision to admit the statement 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 mother's will when Hebert was alive and tried to get the combination to her safe.

He also relied on evidence that allegedly showed that Stuart initially told police that nothing was wrong when they responded to a 911 hangup call and that when police contacted Stuart again she said she had shot her because her mother was coming at her with an ax.

"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 has been involved in," the judge said in February. "Therefore Ms. Stuart, by her actions, has forfeited her right to confront Ms. Hebert."

But defense attorney Peter Connick said Wednesday in a telephone conference call to the court commissioner that is akin to dispensing with the jury because it would mean the defendant obviously is guilty. There is no opportunity for cross-examination and no limit to hearsay statements, he said.

Stuart has a constitutional right to confront her accuser, the defense has argued.

The case has been pending for two years and Mitchell considered a wealth of information made available during that time to make his decision, she said. The defense is cherry-picking facts to make its case to the court of appeals, said Deputy Prosecutor Teresa Chen.

"I would ask the court to be skeptical," she said.

It's clear that at the time of the shooting Hebert was calling 911 to report that her daughter had broken into her safe and stolen from her, the prosecution has argued. Because Hebert was silenced, the state has to rely on statements the victim made to people in the days before her death about her fears, the prosecution has argued.

Hebert reportedly told her ex-husband, a friend and four neighbors that she believed her daughter was trying to kill her.

Eleven days before her death, she was hit on the head by a 32-pound plastic bin of books that fell from the rafters in her garage after Stuart allegedly pushed the bin. Hebert also allegedly said she believed her medication was being switched.

Stuart's trial is scheduled to start May 28.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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