Four years after a woman was convicted of trying to kill her Pasco mother and ultimately following through on the threat, a state appellate court upheld Tuesday the guilty verdicts that led to a 45-year sentence.
The judges questioned whether statements about fear and suspicion made by the victim before her death should have been admitted in Tashia Stuart’s trial, but concluded it was “harmless error” and likely would not have changed the outcome.
The court also refused to overturn a $200 sanction imposed against Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant for not adequately advising a witness about a court’s ruling that limited what he could say on the stand.
Sant had filed a cross appeal on the sanction, arguing that Superior Court Judge Cameron Mitchell needed to find the prosecutor elicited the problematic evidence and acted in bad faith in order to support the fine.
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The Court of Appeals said the basis for the sanction was clear. Mitchell — who denied a defense motion for a mistrial and had to instruct jurors to ignore certain testimony — said there had been several occasions during trial when prosecutors “should have advised their witnesses more specifically regarding the court’s ruling.”
Tashia Stuart claimed that her mother, Judy Hebert, was trying to attack her with a hatchet on March 3, 2011. She said she acted in self-defense when she fired a gun at Hebert three times, hitting the older woman twice.
Stuart, now 44, is serving her sentence at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor. Her estimated earliest release date is February 2054, according to a state Department of Corrections spokeswoman.
Stuart claimed that her mother, Judy Hebert, was trying to attack her with a hatchet on March 3, 2011. She said she acted in self-defense when she fired a gun at Hebert three times, hitting the older woman twice.
Hebert died inside her Salmon Drive home. She also had a chop wound on her head that was made by the hatchet.
Just months before, she had welcomed her daughter into her home, along with Stuart’s husband and her 7-year-old daughter.
After a monthlong trial in 2013, a jury deliberated for 8 1/2 hours before rejecting Stuart’s self-defense claims and convicting her of aggravated 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.
In her appeal, Stuart argued that Judge Mitchell should not have allowed jurors to hear testimony from family and friends that Hebert had shared she was afraid Tashia and Todd Stuart might be trying to kill her.
Less than two weeks before her death, Hebert was seriously injured when an 18-gallon tub filled with books fell from the rafters in the garage and hit her head. Hebert told people she suspected the tub might not have fallen by accident, but been pushed.
Hebert reportedly suspected her daughter of stealing from her, because there were unauthorized withdrawals on her account. She documented things and took pictures, locking it all in her safe, and even set up a “code word” with a neighbor if she needed police but wasn’t free to ask for help.
Jurors could easily have viewed Tashia’s explanation to Detective (Brad) Gregory of the circumstances of the shooting as implausible. Her dishonesty with the four individuals who spoke to her in the immediate aftermath of the shooting may have been the most damning evidence of all.
The court’s opinion
Todd Stuart, who had moved out of Hebert’s home two days before her death, was acquitted in September 2012 of attempted first-degree murder and first-degree conspiracy to commit murder. Jurors said there was a lack of evidence proving the husband devised a plan with his wife to kill Hebert so the couple could inherit her property.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals said the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment did not apply to Tashia Stuart’s case since Hebert’s expression of fear was not testimonial, but “just a casual statement made to a friend.”
The question before the panel was whether the “forfeiture of wrongdoing” exception to the hearsay rule applied to this case — or any murder case. Under that doctrine, statements are admissible if someone intentionally or wrongfully makes a witness unavailable to testify.
Prosecutors had argued on appeal that it was an atypical murder case, committed to prevent Hebert from reporting and testifying to her daughter’s theft.
“Should the state be able to bootstrap Tashia’s actions to procure her mother’s silence on the issue of theft into a basis for admitting hearsay relevant to the murder?” Judge Laurel Siddoway wrote in the 22-page opinion. “Such evidence is not admitted in other murder cases actuated by equally evil motives.”
The appeals judges said they were reluctant to decide that issue without “better developed briefing,” adding that they didn’t need to anyway because the verdicts “can be affirmed on the basis of harmless error.”
“Jurors could easily have viewed Tashia’s explanation to Detective (Brad) Gregory of the circumstances of the shooting as implausible,” the opinion said. “Her dishonesty with the four individuals who spoke to her in the immediate aftermath of the shooting may have been the most damning evidence of all.
“With all of that, and the considerable evidence of Tashia’s efforts to obtain access to her mother’s safe, nothing more was needed for jurors to find guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”