Tashia Stuart guilty of first-degree murder, attempted murder

Tri-City HeraldJuly 3, 2013 

— Tashia Stuart may have been 5 when she was adopted, but Rolfe Hebert never referred to her in that way. In his mind, she was his daughter.

That all ended March 3, 2011, when Stuart killed her mother, Judy Hebert — Rolfe’s former wife of 30 years.

On Wednesday, Rolfe Hebert couldn’t help but shed happy tears and pump his fist in victory as guilty verdicts were read that could put his 40-year-old adopted daughter in prison for the rest of her life.

“Justice got served better than I had anticipated,” he said, becoming emotional with each cellphone call he made from the courtroom to share the news.

A Franklin County Superior Court jury rejected Stuart’s self-defense claims and convicted her of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. The main murder charge included the allegations that Stuart used a firearm and that the crime was against a family member.

The verdicts came after a monthlong trial and 81⁄2 hours of jury deliberations. Jurors had 443 items of evidence to consider.

Stuart wept and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue as she learned her fate.

“Tashia killed the only person (who) ever loved her. … Judy gave up everything for Tashia,” Nicola Hebert, Rolfe’s wife, told the Herald.

The couple waited two years and four months for the conviction.

“Praise God,” she said, hugging Judy Hebert’s former Salmon Drive neighbors who showed up for the verdicts.

Stuart faces 40 to 511⁄2 years in prison, though prosecutors can ask for additional time based on a number of aggravating factors, prosecutor Shawn Sant said.

“This was definitely a victory, and I don’t say it for me. This was a collaborative effort of everybody in the office,” Sant said of his first major trial win since taking office in January 2011.

He spent 11⁄2 hours talking with jurors after the verdicts. They indicated they were split at first and didn’t have a clear direction of which way they were going, he said. But after comparing their notes and reviewing the evidence, they unanimously agreed Stuart was guilty as charged.

The verdicts also included aggravating factors — Stuart acted with deliberate cruelty, the crime was within sight and sound of a minor child, and it involved a destructive and foreseeable impact on persons other than the victim.

Stuart’s daughter, then 7, was inside the home when Judy Hebert was shot. She’s 9 now, living with her father, and often visits her grandparents.

Sant described the verdicts as a big relief, as he’s come to think of Nicola and Rolfe Hebert and others in this case as extended family and wanted a happy ending.

“I think today they felt a sigh of relief knowing that the person responsible for taking Judy’s life will go away,” he said.

Sant wants to talk to family and friends, and listen to any arguments the defense may have, before recommending a sentence, he said.

Sentencing tentatively is set for July 30, though Sant anticipates it being pushed into August or September to accommodate everyone’s schedules.

Stuart’s defense attorney, Bob Thompson, didn’t mince words about the jury’s decision.

“I felt I got kicked in the gut,” Thompson said. “Frankly, I feel it was the wrong verdict. … I’m not going to fault them for it, but I think it was the wrong verdict.”

Thompson had an idea of the eventual outcome when the jury asked two questions 30 minutes earlier about a typo on a special verdict form and a missing date line on another.

The special verdict forms only were to be used if the jury settled on first-degree murder — not for the lesser options of second-degree murder and first- or second-degree manslaughter.

Thompson stood by Stuart’s side for the reading. Co-counsel Peter Connick returned earlier this week to his Seattle office.

Thompson, who has practiced as an attorney for 30 years, questions how the jury didn’t find reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case.

It obviously was difficult news for his client and the defense team, but they knew it was a possibility, he said. He just hopes they get another chance at trying the case.

The verdicts could be “a conceivable life sentence” for Stuart given her age, Thompson said.

“The only chance Ms. Stuart has lies with the Court of Appeals and some of the decisions that were made and some of the techniques that were utilized during trial,” Thompson said.

Jurors must have heard and saw things differently than he did, he said.

“I think we out-attorneyed the other side. Maybe the facts weren’t on our side that the jurors got to hear, but that’s what makes it difficult,” Thompson said. “If they couldn’t see reasonable doubt, especially with (forensic scientist) Kay Sweeney’s testimony, you have to sit back and think, maybe the system didn’t work in this case but maybe it will work later.”

But to Ryan Rhodes — Judy Hebert’s neighbor, who heard the gunshots that day as he worked in his driveway — justice was served.

“I loved her. Her favorite thing to do, I think, was hug me,” Rhodes said, a smile spreading across his face at the memory. “To get this today, it’s very gratifying and hopefully there will be some closure with it. I miss Judy every day and every day I walk out of my house and look at her house and her plants.”

Judy Hebert loved to dig in the dirt, had a degree in horticulture from Spokane Community College and was involved with the Master Gardener programs in Spokane and the Tri-Cities, Rolfe Hebert said. She shared her passion for planting flowers and vegetables with her granddaughter.

Judy and Rolfe stayed “best buddies” even after their divorce in 2007, he said.

Judy took custody of Tashia when she was six months old because her twin sister was unfit to raise the girl, he said. The Heberts were married when they adopted Tashia together.

When their granddaughter came along, the Heberts decided they were going to be the young girl’s hope, even after going separate ways. Rolfe Hebert said Judy left everything to him in her will, and that was used to establish a trust fund for their granddaughter.

“She was a wonderful person. She was not pretentious,” he said. “In the 35 years I knew her, I can honestly say she didn’t make a single enemy.”

He disputes many of the claims made by the defense team as they tried to show that Judy Hebert attacked Stuart, which led to the older woman being shot. She never did drugs, and she was not an alcoholic, he said.

Stuart called Rolfe Hebert two times the morning after her arrest, and both times asked for money, he said. She called again later that month, told him the shooting was an accident and again wanted money, saying she would pay him back once she got out and got a job. He made it clear she was never getting out, and that was the last conversation they had.

He wears Judy Hebert’s wedding band on a chain around his neck, along with his own band. She was 58 when she was killed.

“I feel her around me,” Rolfe Hebert said of his continuing connection to Judy.

He referred to Wednesday’s news as “epic” for the entire family.

“This becomes part of your being. We’ve been doing this since March 3, 2011, and it monopolizes every moment of your time. You wake up with it in the morning, you go to bed with it at night and you dream about it too,” he said. “I get a sense of being renewed, and it’s not for me, it’s for my granddaughter.”

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