- Associated Press - Saturday, September 30, 2017

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Fifteen years after the state convicted a Mitchell man for a 1990 shotgun murder along Interstate 90, assistant attorney general Bob Mayer received an order from the court.

Enough time had passed, and it was time to destroy evidence leftover from Stacy Larson’s trial, including shotgun shells, tennis shoes, photographs and fingerprints, the Argus Leader reported .

It didn’t sit well with Mayer.

“I respect the courts,” Mayer said, “but it didn’t seem like it was a good idea.”

Instead, he stashed the boxes away in the attorney general’s office, then forgot about them until more than a decade later.

Mayer’s decision to disregard a court order in July 2005 offers a potential lifeline to Larson, who maintains his innocence more than 25 years after his conviction.

The evidence, long thought to have been destroyed, was rediscovered and brought to Mayer’s attention in March by a state records custodian.

“I forgot about it frankly,” Mayer said.

The materials are now in the hands of Larson’s attorney, Jason Rumpca, and the Innocence Project of Minnesota, part of a national network of attorneys who work to exonerate wrongfully convicted inmates. The legal team is hopeful the items contain previously untested DNA evidence that could reopen Larson’s case.

“At this time we are in the process of testing that evidence for fingerprints and DNA,” Rumpca said.

The Innocence Project of Minnesota began looking into Larson’s case in 2006 and spent seven years conducting research. It concluded that he could not have fired the shot that killed Ronald Hilgenberg on May 12, 1990, but also that the evidence that would be needed to exonerate him had long since been destroyed.

Mystery and confusion have surrounded the evidence since the start of the Innocence Project’s inquiry. According to prison correspondence between Larson and the Innocence Project, a law student working on the case called the McCook County courthouse and was told by a clerk that there were “five big boxes of stuff.” Later, when the student called again, the same clerk told him the evidence had been destroyed.

Rumpca said he believes most of what the Innocence Project previously sought to recover is contained in the newly discovered evidence.

“We are so happy that Stacy is finally getting the chance to prove his innocence,” said Julie Jonas, legal director for the Innocence Project of Minnesota.

It’s the second time lost evidence has resurfaced in his case. Almost a year ago, McCook County Sheriff Mark Norris found an envelope containing untested swabs taken from Larson’s car the day of the shooting.

“What we are hoping is that the testing of the evidence would help prove Stacy’s innocence,” Rumpca said. “We are really excited about the potential.”

Sonny Walter, a Sioux Falls defense attorney, said there is no reason previously deemed destroyed evidence should turn up more than a decade later. In fact, he said he figured there would have been procedures in place to prevent it from happening.

Walter said no matter the reason the state gives for why the evidence turned up all these years later, it’s not a good look for the attorney general’s office.

“Either someone is incompetent or someone hid it,” Walter said.

Second Judicial Circuit administrator Karl Thoennes said the retention period on holding evidence in criminal cases varies based on the level of offense.

Thoennes said usually, in higher level cases, once the appeal process has been exhausted, that court will send notes to both the defense attorneys and prosecutors letting them know the retention period. In some cases, that could be decades.

“The clerks will maintain those exhibits for years and years,” Thoennes said.

However, in lower-level cases, the court will give prosecutors and defense attorneys a notice of intent to destroy and allow them to retrieve certain evidence. For example, evidence from a burglary that may be the personal property of a client.

If neither attorney responds, the court moves forward with destroying the evidence.

In Larson’s case, a full decade had passed since his last appeal when a judge signed the 2005 order allowing the evidence to be destroyed.

Attorney General Marty Jackley, who has acknowledged “credibility” issues with how evidence and testimony were introduced during Larson’s trial, has assigned an investigator and an assistant attorney general to review Larson’s case.

Under a 2012 law that Jackley introduced, a person convicted of a crime is entitled to a hearing if new evidence emerges that could have affected the jury’s decision.

Rumpca and the Innocence Project hope to do that by sending the new evidence to an out-of-state facility for testing. Jonas said the Innocence project is paying for all the DNA testing being done in this case.

“We are trying to find a third-party perpetrator and have it point to someone else,” Rumpca said.

Larson said in an interview Friday that he didn’t understand how it was deemed missing more a decade ago. He said state officials should have physically looked for the evidence back in 2006 when the Innocence Project approached them.

Larson, who’s serving his life without parole at the prison in Sioux Falls, said he’s confident the evidence will exonerate him and wishes someone would have taken the time to thoroughly search for it years ago.

“It cost me another 12 years of my life because they didn’t look,” he said. “We are talking about a murder case, not a petty case. We are talking about my life.”

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Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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