Friday, June 15, 2012
One of the most notorious murder cases in San Diego history could be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.
More than 14 years after 12-year-old Stephanie Crowe was stabbed to death in her bedroom, the case of Richard Raymond Tuite -- the man ultimately convicted of killing the Escondido girl -- may end up in the Supreme Court.
The high court this week set a Sept. 24 conference date to consider California's appeal of the reversal of Tuite's conviction by a lower court. That means the Tuite case could be one of the relatively few that the Supreme Court hears during its next term.
Tuite, who had a long history of mental illness and drug abuse, was convicted in May 2004 following a marathon Superior Court trial. Jurors deliberated for eight days before reaching a verdict of voluntary manslaughter. They concluded that because of his mental illness, Tuite lacked malice when he stabbed the girl to death through the covers of her bed. (A finding of malice is required to convict on 2nd or 1st degree murder.)
But in a case known for remarkable twists, a divided panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last September overturned Tuite's conviction and ordered a new trial. The state trial judge did not allow Tuite's attorneys to question a crime-scene analyst called by the prosecution about a letter he wrote attacking the ethics and credibility of an analyst called by the defense. That had "a substantial and injurious effect on the verdict," the divided federal panel ruled.
That ruling for a new trial reversed a federal judge's 2009 decision on the same grounds: Tuite's appeal for a reversal had already been denied by state appeals courts.
Now the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to hear the appeal by state prosecutors that Tuite's conviction should be reinstated. Tuite remains in state prison pending outcome of the prosecution's appeal. He was sentenced in 2004 to 13 years; with another four years tacked on because he escaped from the county courthouse during jury selection.
Should the high court take up the case, state prosecutors will have overcome a high hurdle: More than 7,000 petitions for review are sent to the Supreme Court each year and a few hundred are considered with the court actually agreeing to hear and decide between 80 and 120 cases on average in recent years.
But the justices have requested and obtained all files in the Richard Tuite case. And on Thursday they decided to look closely at the matter in a conference on cases set for Sept. 24.
The Crowe/Tuite case made national headlines when Escondido Police falsely accused Stephanie's 14-year-old brother Michael and two of his friends of plotting and carrying out the late-night stabbing. Detectives questioned the youths for hour upon hour -- lying repeatedly to them about evidence -- until Michael, and his friend Joshua Treadway, made incriminating statements.
Crowe, Treadway and a third teen, Aaron Houser, were arrested and jailed for months awaiting trial. But the case fell apart during jury selection in January 1999 when Stephanie's blood was discovered on a filthy red sweatshirt worn by Tuite the night of the killing. More of the girl's blood was subsequently found on an undershirt also worn by Tuite the night of the killing.
The case was taken over from Escondido Police by the San Diego County Sheriff's Department in February 2000 and the state Attorney General's office took the prosecution of it over from the San Diego District Attorney's office in June 2001.
As the criminal case wended its way toward conviction of Richard Tuite, the Crowe, Houser and Treadway families filed suit against Escondido Police, county prosecutors and others in federal court, alleging violation of their Constitutional rights. The Crowes finally settled last October for $7.25 million -- after that marathon case had been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by the City of Escondido.
Neither Supervising Deputy Attorney General Kevin Vienna, who brought this latest Supreme Court appeal, nor Tuite's civil attorney, Benjamin Coleman, would speculate on what the high court may do this week.
But the Crowes' attorney, Milton Silverman, believes the Supreme Court will take the case and reverse the 9th Circuit's decision, reinstating Tuite's conviction.
"Congress has said, 'look, the state courts can decide the Constitutional issues in their own cases.' But appeals courts like the 9th Circuit have sometimes ignored that and overturned cases like that of Richard Tuite," said Silverman. "I predicted months ago that the Supreme Court would reverse this ruling."
Silverman last month won a rare ruling of factual innocence on behalf of Michael Crowe and his friends. A Superior Court judge spent days examining evidence in the case -- including dozens of hours of videotaped police interrogations -- and concluded the one-time murder defendants were innocent beyond a reasonable doubt in the killing of Stephanie Crowe.