Originally published September 8, 2011 at 3:06 p.m., updated September 9, 2011 at 8:51 a.m.
A new trial was ordered Thursday for Richard Raymond Tuite, who was convicted of the highly publicized 1998 killing of 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe.
The case, in which the girl's brother and his two friends originally were falsely accused of the crime by Escondido police, was one of the most notorious in the history of San Diego County.
In a split decision, a three-judge panel of the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals today said Tuite - who has a history of severe mental illness and chronic drug abuse - was penalized by a decision made by San Diego Superior Court Judge Frederic Link.
The two appellate judges ruled that a decision by Link unfairly prevented Tuite's attorneys from questioning a witness called by state prosecutors about a letter he wrote. The letter strongly criticized a defense witness and the federal judges concluded that the missed opportunity to cross-examine him caused "a substantial and injurious effect on the verdict."
The dissenting judge, however, said jurors would likely have reached the same guilty verdict even had the prosecution witness faced defense questioning.
"He's now entitled to a new trial," said attorney Benjamin Coleman, who handled Tuite's appeal.
The state attorney general's office, which secured Tuite's manslaughter conviction and 17-year prison term in 2004, could appeal the panel's decision to the full 9th Circuit panel. Or prosecutors could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case; the decision on how to proceed is being studied, a spokesperson for the Attorney General said yesterday.
Tuite remains, for the foreseeable future, in state prison where he has been since 2001 when he was convicted of a burglary charge unrelated to the Crowe slaying. He had exhausted his appeals in the state court system before turning to the federal courts.
The stunning reversal is only the latest extraordinary twist in a saga full of such twists that began on the morning of Jan. 22, 1998.
Stephanie's grandmother found the popular, award-winning student lying dead in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor. The girl's parents frantically called 911 as her brother Michael, then 14, and younger sister huddled around.
The night before, two different Crowe neighbors in the rural north end of Escondido called 911 after being frightened by Tuite, who was knocking on doors and peering in windows calling out for a woman named Tracy.
But Escondido officers dispatched failed to find the transient, whom neighbors said "looked like Charlie Manson."
One officer pulled up in his well-lit patrol car to the Crowes' house, watched as someone slowly closed a door upon seeing his car, and then reported no suspect in the area and left the scene. That was around the time Stephanie was murdered, according to forensic experts. The Crowes and their attorney now contend that person was Richard Tuite.
After Stephanie's body was discovered, Tuite was discounted as a suspect by Escondido police. They questioned him briefly and let him go - but not before confiscating his clothes, including the filthy red sweatshirt upon which the case would later turn.
Instead, Escondido detectives concluded the killing was an "inside job" and focused on Michael Crowe. Intense interrogations of Michael over two days - during which detectives lied to him about evidence - eventually led to incriminating statements. The investigation also ensnared two of Michael's friends, Josh Treadway and Aaron Houser, who were both 15 at the time.
In overnight interrogations where no attorney or advocate for the youth was involved, Josh Treadway eventually told an elaborate story of how the three friends plotted and executed Stephanie's murder. Many of the "facts" in his story, however, either failed to match evidence, or were highly improbable.
Nonetheless, Michael Crowe and his friends were jailed and charged with Stephanie's slaying.
But on the eve of trial a year after the killing, a DNA test revealed drops of Stephanie's blood on the soiled red sweatshirt worn by Tuite that night.
Subsequent testing found more of her blood on Tuite's undershirt.
Defense Attorney Mary Ellen Attridge, who ordered the extensive testing of Tuite's clothing, said yesterday that she was shocked by the reversal of his conviction.
"I just feel really badly for the Crowe family," she said. "I mean, how how long do they have to deal with this tragedy? How long do these other young men and their families have to deal with this cloud over their heads? The evidence is quite clear: Richard Tuite stabbed Stephanie Crowe to death."
The San Diego District Attorney's Office dropped charges against the youths following the blood revelations. The case was eventually taken over by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and the state Attorney General's Office. Sheriff's detectives concluded Tuite was the killer and he was found guilt of involuntary manslaughter by a jury in 2004.
The heavily publicized trial lasted four months and was preceded by a daring escape by Tuite from custody at the downtown courthouse. He was captured 10 miles away in Clairemont after a citywide hunt that lasted hours.
Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit filed by the Crowe family against Escondido police and county prosecutors for false arrest and imprisonment of their son, is scheduled for trial next month in downtown San Diego. The Treadways have dropped out of the civil proceedings after getting a small settlement, but the Houser family remains a party to the lawsuit along with the Crowes.
Milton J. Silverman, attorney for the Crowe family, said today's ruling in the criminal case will have no effect on his civil lawsuit. He is seeking damages from the city of Escondido and other defendants in the case that could reach millions of dollars.
He said he and other plaintiffs' attorneys have been negotiating with attorneys for the City of Escondido, but no settlement has been reached.
The jury trial is set to begin on Oct. 31.