(AP) - The Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the second-degree murder conviction of a White Bear Lake man who jumped bail and lived as a fugitive for four years after his wife's suspicious death.
The court ruled Tuesday that Gordon Weaver is entitled to a new trial.
A jury convicted him in 2005 in the death of Jean Weaver, who was found dead in the couple's burning home on Oct. 16, 1999. Weaver was sentenced last year to 25 years in prison, double the punishment outlined in state sentencing guidelines.
But the appeals court said the lower court judge shouldn't have allowed a coroner to testify about lab results that had been destroyed as part of a hospital's routine procedures while Weaver was hiding out in Oregon.
The results of tests on carbon monoxide levels in Jean Weaver's blood and the coroner's testimony helped make a case that she died by suffocation after her husband started a fire in the house, not from hitting her head on a washbasin.
Because the lab records were gone, the identity of the technician who performed the tests was unknown. The three-judge panel ruled that Gordon Weaver should have had the chance to cross-examine the technician.
"The laboratory test results became so critical to the defense and were so thoroughly discussed that they surely attributed to the verdict," Appeals Court Judge Roger Klaphake wrote in the ruling.
He added: "And because this error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, appellant is entitled to a new trial."
Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner vowed to ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to reverse the Appeals Court decision. She said the ruling encourages future defendants to run away long enough for critical evidence against them to disappear, as Weaver did.
"He is being rewarded for fleeing the jurisdiction and putting the victim's family through years of additional suffering before he was brought to justice," Gaertner said.
Gordon Weaver would have to petition a court if he wishes to be freed pending an appeal or new trial, Gaertner said.
Attorneys for Weaver didn't immediately return phone messages.
Weaver testified during his trial that he didn't intend to hurt his wife. He said he set the house on fire in a panic after he pushed her during an argument and she hit her head and seemed dead. He admitted to arson and causing his wife's death.
Weaver went underground in March 2000, after he was indicted on first- and second-degree murder charges and released on $300,000 bail.
He eluded authorities until May 2004, when the "America's Most Wanted" television show featured his case and he was caught in Florence, Oregon, with more than $5,000 in cash, a wig, mustaches, a Maine identification card under the name of David Carson and other disguises.
Police said Weaver's parents, Lawrence and Delores Weaver, gave their son a credit card and visited him. But Lawrence Weaver was ruled unfit to stand trial on charges of aiding an offender because he has Alzheimer's disease; Delores Weaver was ordered to perform community service.
The opinion from Klaphake and Judges R.A. Randall and Bruce D. Willis also faulted the district court for not telling jurors how to interpret the phrase "particular cruelty," which was used to justify Weaver's longer prison sentence.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)