Attorney Karen Olson brought forward two witnesses to give testimony regarding evidence handling of a homicide investigation, where David Soldano, 57, of Klamath, is the sole defendant.
Soldano was charged with murder and attempted murder and jailed in the March 2017 stabbing of two men, Timothy Thompson and Todd Burhus, along with other charges. Thompson died of his injuries and Soldano has been in Del Norte County jail awaiting trial since.
Olson filed for dismissal of charges in October, on a Trombetta motion, which alleges that evidence favorable to the defense was destroyed as a result of mishandling by investigating officers.
In November, Del Norte Superior Court Judge Darren McElfresh heard testimony from officers and a state Department of Justice criminalist about the scene outside a Klamath bar after the incident and the handling of evidence.
Olson called Deborah Stonebarger, a former criminologist for the Department of Justice to the stand to ask her opinion of how evidence was handled in the Soldano Case. Stonebarger said she had reviewed body camera footage submitted by Deputy Justin Gill and Sgt. Ed Fleshman, along with photos, reports and other evidence.
Despite almost rhythmic objections by Deputy District Attorney Todd Zocchi, Stonebarger stressed the importance of proper evidence collection and preservation of its integrity.
In previous hearings, there was much discussion about whether investigators should have cordoned off the area and taken steps to mitigate the chaos. Olson then asserted that officers should have immediately roped off the scene to prevent contamination. Fleshman responded, saying emergency personnel and firefighters were still there trying to save Thompson’s life and he was doing his best to deal with the situation.
Olson questioned Stonebarger about the handling of Soldano’s truck, which reportedly was towed back to Crescent City in the rain and later sold at a lien sale. Stonebarger said the truck would have had significant importance to the case and should have been swabbed and dusted for evidence and that evidence preserved.
On questioning, Stonebarger also said there was evidence of confirmation bias by officers who may have only collected evidence supporting their own conclusions.
After much discussion and many objections, Olson was able to ask Stonebarger whether she felt evidence had been compromised in the investigation.
“Yes,” she replied, asserting investigators “blatantly incompetent” actions compromised evidence that would have been helpful to the defense.
“This was not fair to the victim Thompson and his family, or the defendant because potential exculpatory evidence was never tested and now cannot be recovered,” she said.
A cåredible question
Under cross-examination, Zocchi turned his attention to Stonebarger, confirming that she is being paid by Olson $75 an hour, including for travel time from Arizona, for her testimony. Under questioning, Stonebarger admitted spending more than 20 billable hours on the case so far. Zocchi questioned whether she has a financial incentive to testify.
Zocchi brought up at least four instances in Stonebarger’s career with the Department of Justice, she was written up for “level 2 nonconformance,” to which she explained were for mistakes she had made.
Zocchi questioned whether Stonebarger had been removed from a previous case, which was appealed because she testified outside her level of expertise.
When pressed further, Stonebarger said, “forensic scientists make mistakes, too. Just like with any job, we fix it and move on.”
When asked to specifically explain mistakes, Stonebarger said she failed to give adequate variables in a serial number investigation, failed to see a blood stain on evidentiary underwear and others. Zocchi questioned using Stonebarger as an expert witness, saying she has a record of incompetence, herself.
A question of chaos
Olson’s second witness was Kevin Stonebarger, a former Arcata Police Department officer, with a long history in law enforcement, from a start with Fortuna PD in 1996 to being the training officer for Arcata PD and a training officer at College of the Redwoods Police Academy. When asked, he said he had worked with every possible type of crime scene.
At the previous hearing, questioning lingered around subject Buck Scott, who, along with others, police say had to be pulled off of Soldano as they were hitting and kicking him. When Olson questioned why Scott wasn’t arrested at the scene, Sgt. Ed Fleshman said he instead chose to try to calm the volatile situation by speaking to Scott instead.
Kevin Stonebarger said in his review of the tapes, Scott appeared to have been the only person repeatedly causing problems and distracting the investigation. He said Scott should have been cuffed and placed in a patrol vehicle, the scene immediately taped off and the bar used to quietly conduct interviews with witnesses.
Fleshman previously described the scene at the bar parking lot as chaotic with several angry people on the scene who were known to local law enforcement, and who had just been separated by officers assaulting Soldano at the scene.
“I was unsafe,” Fleshman said, noting that only himself, Deputy Justin Gill and a Yurok tribal officer were trying to handle the situation.
Kevin Stonebarger said in his review of the situation, it was not chaotic, and noted overhearing one officer telling dispatch that the scene was “Code 4” meaning no more assistance would be needed. He said while there appeared to be an element of danger, the scene was not what he would call chaotic, based on his reviews.
Both he and Deborah Stonebarger said the first thing that should have been done to collect and preserve evidence at the scene should have been to cordon off the crime scene area and make sure unauthorized people did not trample inside it.
Zocchi was not able to question Kevin Stonebarger as court needed to be adjourned. However, before Kevin Stonebarger was allowed to testify, Zocchi said he could show grounds for his impeachment as a witness.
As the court was cleared, a question came up as to the Kevin Stonebarger’s availability, based on previously made travel plans.
The hearing was set to resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.