A former Pasco man accused of conspiring with his estranged wife to kill his mother-in-law last year got a victory in court Wednesday when a Franklin County judge said that statements he made to police can't be introduced at trial.
Prosecutors also won't be able to tell the jury in Todd David Stuart's case about statements Judy Hebert allegedly said to neighbors and family claiming that Stuart and her daughter, Tashia, were trying to kill her.
Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell also said only limited statements Hebert made to a neighbor that show what her state of mind was can be introduced at Tashia Stuart's murder trial.
Hebert, 58, died March 3, 2011, two months after her daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter moved into her home on Salmon Drive.
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Tashia Stuart is charged with first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances for allegedly shooting Hebert inside her Pasco home. Tashia Stuart, 38, has claimed self-defense and said her mother came at her with an ax. Her trial is set for Oct. 24.
Todd Stuart, 48, will stand trial next month -- jurors will be called Sept. 10 -- for allegedly plotting to kill Hebert on Feb. 20, 2011, when an 18-gallon bin of books fell on her head in the garage.
Todd Stuart is charged with attempted first-degree murder, but prosecutor Shawn Sant has said he intends to add a murder charge against Stuart before the trial.
On Wednesday, Todd and Tashia Stuart were in court together while their defense attorneys argued to keep statements Hebert reportedly made to others out of court.
Sant sought to admit statements that Hebert made to her ex-husband, a friend and four neighbors after the bin of books fell on her head. Hebert reportedly told others that she believed it was an attempt to kill her. She said she suspected the Stuarts were switching her medication and she had been hiding the pills.
In order for the hearsay statements to be allowed, prosecutors had the burden to show they met the exception to the rule by being a "dying declaration," "excited utterance" or something that showed her state of mind.
Sant said the statements were made after she was injured and she still was undergoing the stress of the event, and still living with the Stuarts, whom she relied on for care. Five days after the books fell on her, she was taken to the hospital and told medical staff that she was in excruciating pain, he said.
"Five days later, they recognize she was probably not going to die from the incident in the garage, then they take her to the hospital," Sant said. "We believe five days later she was still going through the stress of the event and she believes she is going to die."
Sant also noted that the injury in the garage happened just 10 days before Hebert's eventual homicide.
Jeffery Robinson, Todd Stuart's defense attorney from Seattle, argued that none of the statements meet any of the exception to the rule in his client's case, except for a statement made to Rolfe Hebert on the day of the garage incident.
Judy Hebert reportedly told her ex-husband that she wasn't seriously hurt by the bin of books, wasn't bleeding and didn't want to go to the hospital, Robinson said.
Robinson and Peter Connick, one of Tashia Stuart's defense attorneys, argued that the dying declaration exception didn't apply because it deals with statements made when death is imminent.
Defense attorneys also claimed the excited utterance rule only would apply to things said shortly after the garage incident occurred, not after Judy Hebert had time to think about how the bin of books fell and come to a conclusion about what happened.
Sant argued that if the statements aren't allowed, then the judge is allowing a defendant to kill someone and get away with it, but Robinson countered that the hearsay law is written for a reason, because hearsay statements "are powerful and can be misused," he said.
"This is the way innocent people get sent to prison ... when courts say it doesn't meet the hearsay rules but the state needs it and I'm going to let it in," Robinson said.
Judge Mitchell sided with the defense in almost every argument. Because Todd Stuart's defense is a general denial, the statements that show Hebert's state of mind also can't be introduced, Mitchell said.
Limited statements Hebert made to neighbor Debora Severin can be heard in Tashia Stuart's trial because she's claiming self-defense.
Mitchell said he will allow Hebert's statement that she was concerned for her safety with Tashia and Todd Stuart, that she was afraid she could be bound up inside and not be able to talk, and that Hebert set up a code word to let Severin know there was a problem.
Mitchell also ruled that statements Todd Stuart made to two Pasco detectives after he was arrested in Oakland, Calif., cannot be used because Stuart didn't waive his right to an attorney.
After being read his rights, Stuart said, "I think I should probably have a lawyer just to protect you and me," but detectives continued to talk to him.
The detectives said they ended the interview later when he specifically asked for a lawyer.
Judge Mitchell, however, said Stuart's initial statement clearly showed which way he was leaning and the officers should have clarified his intent.
-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org