The charge of first-degree murder has been dismissed against a Hurley man who was convicted of the crime in 2008, according to the Stone County prosecuting attorney’s office.
In May of 2008, Zackary Stewart, then 19, was convicted of the murder of 53-year-old David Dulin, also a resident of Hurley. Dulin was found shot to death in his home on Nov. 29, 2006. Following his conviction, Stewart was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He would spend the next two years at the South Central Correctional Center in Licking.
“For Zack, it was like a bad dream,” said Grant Rahmeyer, an attorney in Springfield who, along with attorney Stacie Bilyeu, represented Stewart.
A large piece of evidence against Stewart was the testimony of two men he had shared a cell with when he had been briefly incarcerated after a DWI arrest on March 23, 2007. The cellmates informed a state detective, and later testified in court, that Stewart had confessed to them his involvement in Dulin’s murder.
But as the investigation continued during and after the trial, some of the facts didn’t match up.
“There was a cap found at the crime scene in a pool of blood,” Stone County Prosecutor Matt Selby said.
“During the trial, one of the family members told me that was not David Dulin’s hat.”
This came as a surprise to Selby and the investigators in the case, and the hat was sent to the crime lab in Jefferson City for DNA analysis. They had the bombshell results a couple days later, still in the middle of Stewart’s trial.
According to a public decision by the Missouri Supreme Court, the DNA of neither Stewart, nor Leo Connelly, who was originally thought to be his accomplice, was present on the hat. Instead, the tests indicated, and later confirmed, the DNA of Stewart's brother-in-law, as well as “other unidentifiable persons.”
Investigators then discovered a number of witnesses — one who claimed the brother-in-law owned a cap identical to the one found at the crime scene, and two who claimed he had made incriminating statements shortly after the murder — statements they had not taken seriously until they learned of the DNA evidence on the cap.
Based on this new evidence, the high court ruled earlier this year that a new trial should be conducted. It was scheduled to begin on Feb. 14, 2011.
Selby intended to pursue the same charges in this trial, saying that the cap and the DNA evidence on it did not exonerate Stewart.
“The cap was not in any way part of the evidence that led to him being convicted,” Selby explained in an interview on Monday, Dec. 6.
However, citing recently discovered information “concerning David Dulin’s death,” Selby has decided to effectively dismiss all charges against Stewart.
“Based on all the information currently available, I do not believe it is appropriate to continue Zackary Stewart’s current prosecution,” Selby said in a statement released by his office.
Stewart walked out the doors of the Greene County Jail at about 5:45 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3, a free man.
“We were shocked and relieved,” Rahmeyer said. “We feel that Zack is every bit as innocent now as he has been for years. We believe this prosecution never should have taken place, and we’re glad he can finally put these horrible last few years behind him.”
Rahmeyer said that the first thing Stewart wanted to do upon his release was go to McDonald’s.
“He wanted some real food,” Rahmeyer said with a laugh.
The investigation into the 2006 murder is ongoing, and is being conducted by the Stone County Sheriff’s Department with assistance by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
Selby said that the investigation is “progressing,” but that they wish to be careful.
“We want to make absolutely sure we’re going in the right direction.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the DNA on the bloody cap found at the crime scene belonged to David Dulin's brother-in-law. It actually belongs to Zackary Stewart's brother-in-law.