Richard Tuite was convicted nine years ago for the horrific stabbing death of Stephanie Crowe. But an appeals court threw out that verdict. Today, after a five-week retrial, a new jury said the evidence is not strong enough to send him back to prison. NBC 7’s Mari Payton has the story.
Jurors have acquitted a mentally-ill transient who spent eight years behind bars for the brutal killing of an Escondido girl.
Stephanie Crowe was just 12 when she was stabbed nine times in her bed and then collapsed and died in her bedroom doorway.
On Friday, jurors acquitted Tuite and with that verdict, reopened a painful wound for Crowe’s parents whose son Michael was once charged with the crime.
After a full day of deliberations, jurors returned a not guilty verdict, clearing Tuite of voluntary manslaughter charges.
Tuite smiled at his attorney and then turned to the back of the courtroom and smiled at his sister seated behind him.
Kerri Licon, Richard Tuite’s older sister, was his sole supporter who never gave up on her brother.
She has long admitted her brother was a transient who suffered from schizophrenia but she maintained he was not in the Crowe home on the night of Stephanie’s death.
Stephanie Crowe’s sister, Shannon Dehesa, was the only member of the Crowe family in the courtroom when the verdict was read. She was crying and being comforted by a friend.
Stephanie’s mother Cheryl Crowe told NBC 7 it’s only a matter of time before Richard Tuite kills again.
She and her husband were in Oregon Friday where they welcomed a new grandchild into the family just five days ago.
Jurors may have found Tuite not guilty but that doesn't mean he's innocent, Crowe said.
“I’m sure they will regret their verdict once he kills somebody else. It’s only a matter of time. So lock your doors," she warned.
“He’s already killed my daughter. It’s just a matter of time before he does it to someone else’s child,” she added.
Her son, Michael, was not surprised by the verdict.
Jurors also heard from Michael Crowe during the trial. He was initially arrested and charged in his sister’s murder.
A judge later threw out the charges levied against Michael and his friends Aaron Houser and Joshua Treadway, ruling they were based on coerced confessions of teenagers.
Jurors heard the videotaped confession along with the defense team’s theory that Michael Crowe, Treadway and Houser were responsible for Stephanie’s death.
Michael Crowe, who has since been ruled factually innocent in the case, spoke to NBC 7 in an exclusive interview before testifying, earlier on in Tuite's retrial. He called the defense’s theory “an argument that comes out of the inability to accept reality.”
In closing arguments, the defense reminded jurors that under the law, if they are going to go with circumstantial evidence, every link in the chain must stand on its own.
“Does all of this evidence raise, at the very least, a reasonable doubt and suggest that somebody other than Richard Tuite committed this offense?” defense attorney C. Bradley Patton asked jurors in his closing argument.
After the verdict, Patton pointed to two factors he believed led to the not guilty verdict - the lack of evidence placing an angry, violent Tuite near the Crowe home on the night of the killing and the inability for his client to get inside a locked house.
“There was absolutely no evidence he could have gone into that residence. At all. The door was deadlocked. Steven Crowe made that clear and there was no other source for accessing that residence,” Patton said. “It’s implausible to suggest that it could’ve been Richard Tuite.”
Stephanie's mother argued that Tuite was able to escape police custody at an early court hearing and travel from downtown to Clairemont without capture.
“He slipped out of the San Diego County Courthouse. If you can slip out of there you can slip into somebody else’s house,” Cheryl Crowe said.
The defense team also attacked the blood stains found on Tuite’s clothing, offering testimony that the blood could have been transferred while in the custody of investigators.
Patton said Tuite conveyed to his defense team he was happy with the verdict and the way the jury handled the case, his attorney said.
The plan is for Tuite to be released once administrative work is complete and live with his mother and stepfather, Patton said.
Licon said the Tuite family has been through a life-altering, indescribable experience over the last 15 years.
Her brother was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 2004 – six years after the killing. In 2012, a federal appeals court voided Tuite's conviction and ordered a new trial.
"We never doubted his innocence. We just had to have faith in our system to get their head out of their a-- and do the right thing,” Licon told NBC 7.
She feels justice was served.
"Justice has finally prevailed, not only for Stephanie, but for Richard. Today is justice for Stephanie,” Tuite's sister said.
The Crowes say the verdict doesn't change their opinion that Tuite is their daughter's killer.
“We will get justice one day but it won’t be here on Earth,” Cheryl Crowe said.
A sheriff's department official told NBC 7 Tuite will remain in jail over the weekend and will likely be released Monday, as his release paperwork is still being processed.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said that once the court order of release is received, Tuite will be processed at the California Institute for Men in Chino, Calif., where he was last incarcerated. There, officials will have up to five days to process and release Tuite.
Per protocol, officials will not release information on the exact time or place of Tuite’s release to protect his safety, as well as the safety of officials.