Originally published May 22, 2012 at 10:58 a.m., updated May 22, 2012 at 12:54 p.m.
A San Diego Superior Court judge has found Michael Crowe and two of his friends factually innocent in the 1998 slaying of Crowe's 12-year-old sister, Stephanie.
The compounded tragedy that befell the Crowe family of Escondido has finally come full circle. More than 14 years after Stephanie Crowe was discovered stabbed to death on her bedroom floor, her brother Michael and two of his high school friends have been declared factually innocent of the crime.
Superior Court Judge Kenneth So made the extremely rare ruling today at the behest of the Crowe family and their attorney, Milton J. Silverman.
So's ruling means that records of the arrest and prosecution of Michael Crowe -- 14 at the time of his sister's murder -- will be destroyed. That will also be the case regarding Crowe's friends Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser, who were arrested and charged along with Michael following a botched investigation by Escondido Police and false charges filed by the San Diego District Attorney's office in early 1998.
The judge held several days of hearings on the high-profile case in which he reviewed all available evidence, including dozens of hours of video showing the harsh and coercive interrogations of the three teen-age boys. Judge So concluded the evidence showed beyond a reasonable doubt that the teens were innocent.
No physical evidence tied the three original defendant s to Stephanie's killing. Instead, the teenagers were charged based on statements they made during interrogations at which no attorney, parent nor advocate was present.
After being lied to about Stephanie's blood being found in his room and being interrogated for many hours over two days, Michael Crowe "confessed" to killing his sister. Treadway endured an overnight interrogation and another lasting nearly 10 hours that also featured lies by detectives. The boy, then 15, ultimately gave detectives a far-fetched story of how the stabbing plot supposedly went down.
But two judges in 1998 ruled that most of what the teens told police would not be admissible at trial. Still, prosecutors proceeded.
Then in the midst of jury selection in January 1999, a year after Stephanie's killing, the case against the teens was suddenly halted by bombshell evidence: Stephanie's DNA matched several drops of blood discovered on a red sweatshirt. That sweatshirt was worn by a transient who was the subject of two 911 calls by Crowe neighbors shortly before the slaying.
The transient -- Richard Raymond Tuite -- had been detained and briefly questioned by Escondido Police the day after the stabbing, which occurred as the child huddled in bed fully clothed and under sheets, blankets and a comforter.
Tuite's clothing, including the red sweatshirt, was confiscated; he was given sweat clothes and released after barely 20 minutes of questioning. There was no doubt that the grimy sweatshirt belonged to Tuite because police had stopped him for questioning in the days before the killing and photographed him wearing the red shirt.
An Escondido Police lab technician testing the shirt, using a dubious method, had failed to discover any blood. But at the insistence of Treadway's defense attorney, Mary Ellen Attridge, the shirt was sent to an acclaimed Bay Area lab where the drops of blood matching Stephanie's DNA were found.
The DNA revelation halted the case against Crowe, Treadway and Houser.
Tuite, who was severely mentally ill with a long history of drug abuse and property crime, was by then in prison for an unrelated burglary.
Embarrassed by the disintegration of the case, Escondido Police and the District Attorney's office let the Stephanie Crowe investigation languish for several years. Ultimately, the San Diego County Sheriff's Office and California Attorney General's office took the investigation.
And In 2004, more than six years after the Crowe family made their gruesome discovery, Richard Tuite was convicted by a jury of voluntary manslaughter. In addition to the blood found on his red sweatshirt, more blood was discovered at a state lab on the hem of the undershirt also worn by Tuite on the night of the killing.
Jurors interviewed after the verdict said the blood evidence was compelling and that they quickly discounted the defense claims that the teens had killed Stephanie based on their statements to police.
Tuite was sentenced to 16 years in state prison. But in another strange twist in the bizarre case, Tuite's conviction was reversed on appeal in September 2011 by a panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. On a 2-1 vote, the judges ruled Tuite is entitled to a new trial because a peripheral witness among scores who testified in the four-month case was not cross-examined by the defense. State prosecutors have appealed that ruling and Tuite remains in state prison pending the outcome.
The Crowe family sued Escondido Police, county prosecutors and others involved in the case and last October finally reached a settlement of $7.25 million dollars. They claimed Michael's constitutional rights against false arrest and imprisonment had been violated.
Cheryl Crowe told KPBS at the time that her family's shock and grief following the discovery of Stephanie's body had been immeasurably compounded by the actions of police. She said detectives targeted the teens without reason.
"They did it with malice," Cheryl Crowe said in an interview. "They knew what they were doing. We were ready to go to trial to prove that. And they never admitted they did anything wrong."
The Crowe's attorney, Milton Silverman, said in a recent interview that he pushed the rare motion for factual innocence to clear the names of Michael Crowe, Joshua Treadway and Aaron Houser once and for all.
His argument to Judge So was the same one he would have made to a civil jury in federal court, Silverman said: That Escondido Police had failed to find Richard Tuite after the neighbors' 911 calls and to mask that mistake they insisted the crime was "an inside job" and bore in on Michael Crowe and his friends.