SAN DIEGO - A transient was acquitted Friday of a voluntary manslaughter charge stemming from the 1998 stabbing death of a 12-year-old girl in a rural Escondido home.
It was the second time that Richard Tuite, 44, had been tried for the Jan. 20, 1998, death of Stephanie Crowe. He was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in 2004, but a federal appeals court in 2011 ruled that Tuite didn't get a fair trial because a judge limited cross-examination of a prosecution witness.
Tuite's sister, Kerri Licon, cried as the verdict was announced. After the jury exited the courtroom, Tuite shook hands with his legal team.
"Today is justice for Stephanie," Licon said outside court. "This is justice, not only for Richard, but also for Stephanie."
Tuite, who has been serving a 17-year sentence, is expected to be released from custody soon, said his attorney, Brad Patton.
"I believe this whole thing was an injustice," Patton told reporters. "Without question, I have always believed very strongly that Richard Tuite did not commit this offense."
Patton told 10News the state will continue to hold Tuite due to a 2004 incident in which he escaped custody. Patton said while state officials believe Tuite should be sentenced for escaping, he thinks his client should be credited for the time he has served.
Patton said he plans to speak to a judge as early as next week to resolve it. In the meantime, Tuite will remain in San Diego County Jail, Patton said.
Before Tuite was prosecuted, Stephanie's brother, Michael Crowe, and two of his friends were accused of her murder, and police extracted confessions. However, the admissions were later ruled to have been coerced by Escondido police and an assisting Oceanside officer under harsh interrogation tactics.
In closing arguments of Tuite's retrial Wednesday, Patton told jurors that Tuite had never been in the Crowe house and wouldn't have been able to find Stephanie's bedroom in the dark home. In addition, Patton said, investigators did not find Tuite's fingerprints or DNA in the residence.
Patton said Stephanie must have been held down under a comforter to keep her quiet while another person stabbed her.
The attorney said one of her brother's friends, Joshua Treadway, told police that another pal, Aaron Houser, gave him the knife used to kill Stephanie and told him to get rid of it.
Patton told the jurors that they were not responsible for determining if the boys committed the crime, but said it did raise doubt as to whether Tuite killed the victim.
Outside court Friday, an emotional juror, Peggy Chaplin, said there was no evidence that Tuite was ever in the Crowe residence that night.
Chaplin said deciding the case was a "tremendous burden," She said the jurors' hearts go out to the Crowe family.
"We never lost sight of their tragedy," Chaplin said.
Chaplin also said jurors looked hard at the possibility of contamination regarding the victim's blood found on Tuite's shirts.
"It was a cause for concern," she said.
Deputy Attorney General Alana Butler said during her closing argument that Tuite was in the area of the Crowe home the night Stephanie was killed, knocking on doors and looking for a woman named Tracy.
"He was angry. He was obsessed and delusional," Butler told the jury.
Butler said the victim's blood was found on a long-sleeve red shirt and a white T-shirt that Tuite was wearing when he was contacted by police the next day.
The prosecutor said Tuite wandered into the Crowe home about 10 p.m. through an open door, went into Stephanie's bedroom and stabbed her at least nine times.
"This is where proximity meets opportunity," Butler said. "Once he got in the house, I can't tell you exactly what happened there."
Butler said Tuite was "not well" and was angry at Tracy because she had turned him away a couple years earlier.
"He just couldn't stop thinking about Tracy," the prosecutor said. "He couldn't handle it."
Butler said the theory that Michael Crowe, along with Treadway and Houser, were responsible for her death was not a reasonable interpretation of the evidence and should be rejected.
The teenagers were charged with murder in 1998. The District Attorney's Office later dropped all charges against the boys just before trial when Stephanie's blood was found on Tuite's shirts.
Experts testified that the blood stains got on the shirts through contamination during the crime scene analysis, Patton said.
"They (the stains) were not there at the time those shirts were originally evaluated," Patton said.
The families of Michael Crowe, Treadway and Houser won a federal civil rights lawsuit against the cities of Escondido and Oceanside on grounds they were denied their rights against self-incrimination and false arrest. In late 2011, the Crowe family settled a suit for $7.25 million and in early 2012, a judge officially declared the boys factually innocent of the crime.
Patton said he didn't think there would be another prosecution in the case.
The attorney said Tuite will return to his family once he's released.
"Richard does well when he maintains on his medications," Patton said. "He will be on disability, there's no question about that. So, he will have a normal life ... Fortunately, he has the support of family which will make all the difference in the world for him."
Reached by phone in Oregon, Stephanie's mother, Cheryl Crowe, voiced disappointment to 10News.
"It's just a roller coaster ride and it's been that for 16 years and nothing will surprise me. We're not going to get Stephanie back either way; that's what we want, but we can't have that and Richard Tuite is guilty. Did the jury say he's innocent? No. He just wasn't proven guilty in court," she said.
She warned that she believes Tuite is a threat to the community, adding, "I just hope the North County is aware that he's going to be out walking the streets and that people lock their doors. He's going to get out and go off his meds like so many times before and hurt someone else."