CROOKSTON, Minn.-A Crookston man who was sentenced to nearly 27 years in prison for selling meth had his conviction overturned by an appellate court and will begin a new trial process next week.
Zane Robert Stigen, 49, was convicted of first-degree meth sale after a jury trial in February 2016 and received a sentence of 322 months in prison from Judge Anne Rasmussen. His sentence came with an aggravated durational departure, meaning he was sentenced to serve more time than state guidelines typically call for.
But this month, the Minnesota Court of Appeals released its decision to overturn Stigen's conviction on the grounds Rasmussen erred in allowing the Polk County Attorney's Office to use evidence from Stigen's prior meth convictions in the trial, finding "it is reasonably possible that the error significantly affected the verdict."
Stigen's attorney, public defender Eric Gudmundson, said he is optimistic about a favorable outcome of his client in a retrial. That process is slated to start Dec. 26 with a hearing in Crookston before Judge Rasmussen.
On Sept. 22, 2015, police discovered a small of meth on a man identified in court documents as "T.N." in Crookston. That man told officers who he got it from, a man referred to as "K.F." and added they believed his K.F.'s source was a man named "Zane," according to court filings. Police asked T.N. to try to buy more drugs, and K.F. told him he needed to get more meth before he could sell more. Officers followed K.F., saw him enter Stigen's home and pulled him over afterwards, discovering about 13 grams of meth. K.F. told police he'd been supplied meth by Stigen.
K.F.'s testimony ended up being the only evidence directly connecting Stigen to meth sale, the appellate court wrote. No meth had been found at Stigen's home when a search warrant was executed the day police arrested K.F., the court stated.
The defense had argued the witness was covering for his real source, and that there had been two others inside the home at the time.
Polk County Assistant Attorney Scott Buehler asked the court to allow five prior convictions for Stigen to be discussed at the trial. Judge Rasmussen allowed three: A 1997 conviction for conspiring to create a meth lab, a 2005 conviction for attempting to purchase meth from an undercover police officer, and a 2010 conviction for meth possession and drug paraphernalia.
The Court of Appeals ruled that while all the convictions involved meth, none was "substantially similar so as to properly identify the appellant as the person who sold the drugs to K.F."
Being "substantially similar" is a requirement of the five-step test the Minnesota Supreme Court established to determine whether to admit evidence from prior crimes, known as Spriegl evidence.
The court found the prior convictions were "markedly dissimilar to the charged offense" and that Spriegl evidence standards call for the court to exclude prior crime evidence in close calls.
"Here, the admissibility of the appellant's past drug crimes was not even a close call," the court found.