The Washington State Court of Appeals has overturned the convictions of a man found guilty of two crimes connected to the theft of 41 guns from a Fife sporting-goods store, saying his trial should have taken place in King County not Pierce.
A Pierce County jury convicted Andrew Stearman in April 2013 of possession of a stolen firearm and unlawful possession of a firearm. Stearman, a Seattle resident, was sentenced to 14 months in prison.
In a ruling issued Tuesday, a three-judge panel from Division II said Superior Court Judge Katherine Stolz was wrong when she refused to consider Stearman’s change-of-venue argument.
That argument came at the midway point of his trial, when it became apparent that none of the crimes for which he was being prosecuted had occurred in Pierce County.
The appeals panel said Stearman could be recharged, “in the appropriate venue,” with only the crimes of unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of a stolen firearm.
A decision as to whether that would occur had not been made Tuesday.
Prosecutors originally charged Stearman with trafficking in stolen property and possession of a stolen firearm, contending he sold some of the guns taken during the Sportco robbery.
A group of burglars broke into the business in December 2011, smashing glass display cases and making off with a variety of firearms.
Prosecutors later added charges of conspiracy and unlawful possession of a firearm against Stearman.
His lawyer argued to Superior Court Judge Edmund Murphy that the defendant should be tried in King County, as that is where his alleged criminal conduct occurred.
Prosecutors countered that Pierce County was the proper venue because part of the conspiracy occurred here: Mainly that one of the Sportco thieves called Stearman from Pierce County to arrange fencing some of the stolen guns, court records show.
Based on the prosecution’s argument, Murphy denied Stearman’s motion to change venue.
The case then was transferred to Judge Katherine Stolz for trial.
Stolz dismissed the conspiracy charge at the end of the prosecutors’ case, ruling there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him.
Stearman then again asked for a change of venue to King County, saying the remaining counts allegedly occurred at his West Seattle home. Stolz declined.
That was a mistake, the Court of Appeals said, because criminal defendants have a constitutional right to trial in the county where their alleged conduct occurred.
“Here, the state failed to produce any evidence that any of Stearman’s acts occurred in Pierce County,” appellate judge Lisa Worswick wrote for the majority.