Prosecution says Tashia Stuart's defense investigator yet to return evidence

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldMay 16, 2013 

The Franklin County prosecutor couldn't confirm Thursday if he'll be ready to start Tashia Stuart's murder trial in less than two weeks because the defense investigator has not returned the state's evidence.

"The concern to the state is the fact that we have our evidence outstanding," Shawn Sant told a Franklin County judge.

He said they were supposed to have it back the first week of May. "Certainly I'd like our evidence returned. ... It should not be our job to drive over to the west side (to pick it up)."

The evidence was handed over earlier this year to Kay Sweeney, a Kirkland forensic scientist hired to do independent analysis for the defense.

Defense attorney Peter Connick said Thursday they will have Sweeney drive it back to the Pasco Police Department.

Stuart, 40, is charged in Franklin County Superior Court with first-degree murder with aggravated circumstances and attempted first-degree murder.

Her trial is to start May 28.

Judge Cameron Mitchell said he understands the prosecution's hesitation, but made it clear that he expects the trial will go as scheduled.

Stuart is accused of killing her 58-year-old mother in March 2011 after the two women argued about money.

She has claimed self-defense, saying she shot Judy Hebert after her mother came at her with an ax. Stuart and her 7-year-old daughter had lived with Hebert for two months.

The charges include the allegation that 11 days before Hebert's death, Stuart set up her mother to be in the garage when a 32-pound plastic bin fell from the rafters. Hebert was hit but not severely hurt.

Stuart's estranged husband, Todd Stuart, was acquitted by a jury in September of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with the garage incident.

Earlier this month, both sides argued before a commissioner with the Washington Court of Appeals about whether the jury in Tashia Stuart's case should be allowed to hear statements her mother made to friends and neighbors in the weeks before she was killed.

Judge Mitchell allowed the statements, saying a defendant cannot kill a witness and then argue that the witness is not available to testify.

However, the defense said it is akin to dispensing with the jury because it would mean the defendant obviously is guilty. The attorney also argued that there's no opportunity for cross-examination and no limit to hearsay statements.

Court Commissioner Joyce McCown of Spokane is to decide if the issue should be heard by the entire appeals court panel.

On Thursday, Sant said McCown was aware of the upcoming trial date but she has yet to rule on the issue.

That delay also concerns Sant because the ruling could "change potential strategies on both sides, and certainly what will be presented to the jury."

The defense also told Mitchell they may ask him to consider taking testimony during the trial from Todd Stuart via Skype. He has been subpoenaed by the defense, and is hesitant to come back to this state because he feels he was wrongly prosecuted, said defense lawyer Bob Thompson.

Sant said he will object to that unusual request.

Mitchell also must decide if Tashia Stuart's rights were violated when Franklin County jail staff took legal documents from her cell during a search.

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