Forensic expert calls Pasco killing self-defense

Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldJune 27, 2013 

Tashia Stuart killed her mother in self-defense as she came toward Stuart wielding a hatchet, a forensic expert said Thursday.

Judy Hebert, 58, was most likely in the act of swinging the hatchet when Stuart fired a fatal shot from inside her mother's bedroom, said forensic scientist Kay Sweeney. Stuart was trapped in the bedroom and had no option but to try to protect herself.

"Tashia Stuart (had) no recourse but to act against the threat of violence," Sweeney said.

Sweeney -- an independent forensic scientist who has worked for the Seattle Police Department, King County Sheriff's Office and Washington State Patrol -- testified for the defense Thursday. He has testified in more than 1,000 cases across the nation, with the majority as a prosecution witness, he said.

Sweeney was the only witness to testify Thursday. Jurors also watched the end of a four-hour interview Stuart had with Pasco police detectives, taped shortly after the shooting took place.

Sweeney's testimony appeared to back up parts of what Stuart told detectives about the day she shot her mother.

Sweeney reconstructed the scene for jurors from his point of view using crime scene photographs and diagrams. He studied police reports and crime scene photos and tested evidence in his lab, he said.

Sweeney believes Hebert was in the doorway to her bedroom with the hatchet raised somewhere above her head when Stuart shot her through the hand, he said. The bullet traveled into her chest and ended up lodged in her spine.

Stuart fired three shots, Sweeney said. The first one was fatal. The third hit Hebert on the right side of her body. Tissue splatter and gunpowder residue indicates the muzzle of the gun was touching Hebert's hand when Stuart fired the first shot.

Hebert most likely was on the ground when the second and third shots were fired from inside the bedroom, Sweeney said.

Stuart, 40, is charged with first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances for killing her mother March 3, 2011, inside the home they shared together in Pasco.

Stuart also is charged with attempted first-degree murder for an incident on Feb. 20, 2011, where a large bin of items fell on Hebert's head while she took measurements in her garage.

Stuart claims self-defense. She told detectives in the interview that her mother was chasing her with the hatchet during an argument about money.

Sweeney testified tissue splatter on both sides of the hatchet means it was "in motion" when Hebert was shot.

"It had to be in motion to get tissue exposure," Sweeney said.

A cut near the crown of Hebert's head -- which prosecutors said was made after Hebert was on the ground -- happened by chance when the hatchet fell from her hand after she was shot, Sweeney said. The blood trails on Hebert's head moved from back to front, meaning she wasn't lying down when the cut took place.

"That's significant because blood did not emit from that wound (when Hebert was on the ground)," Sweeney said.

Stuart told detectives in the interview she hit Hebert with that hatchet while the two were struggling for it.

Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant questioned Sweeney about other possible ways tissue could have gotten onto the hatchet.

Sweeney admitted that it was possible, though unlikely, that some of the larger tissue could have been transferred to the hatchet after making contact with parts of Hebert's body, rather than being projected from the gunshot.

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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