The Second District Court of Appeals has overturned the 2011 murder conviction of Charles Stobaugh in the disappearance and presumed death of his wife, citing lack of evidence in the case.
The ruling, issued Thursday and written by Justice Sue Walker, upholds Stobaugh’s arguments that the evidence was insufficient to establish murder in the 2004 disappearance of his wife, Kathy.
Shortly after rendering its opinion, the court also agreed that Stobaugh could be released on a $25,000 bond with conditions to be established by a Denton district court judge.
Stobaugh, 58, a Sanger farmer, has been serving a 25-year sentence at the Wallace Pack Unit near Navasota in Grimes County. First Assistant District Attorney Jamie Beck said Stobaugh was still in custody Friday afternoon but was expected to be released as soon as he posted the bond. Stobaugh’s attorneys could not be reached for comment.
Kathy Stobaugh’s brother, Chris Munday, said Friday the family still believes Charles Stobaugh killed her.
“My family wants justice, not only for my sister, Kathy, but for all victims of violence everywhere,” Munday said in a prepared statement. “We do not want the state of Texas to be the state that says it’s OK to kill as long as you can hide the body so that no one will find it.”
Munday said the family still hopes the district attorney will appeal the decision.
The Denton County District Attorney’s office has 30 days to appeal the ruling. Beck said it would take the attorneys there some time to review the court’s 176-page opinion and decide whether to file an appeal.
“But if you had to pin me down today, I would say chances are on the high end that we will,” Beck said.
The court’s opinion cited several sections of the trial transcript in its ruling on the case, which was largely based on circumstantial evidence since Kathy Stobaugh’s body has never been found.
In their analysis, the justices found that the state’s case supported the inference that Kathy Stobaugh was dead and that Charles Stobaugh had a definite opportunity and possible motive to murder her. But without an autopsy, there was no evidence for the jury to infer Charles Stobaugh’s intent to do so, the court wrote.
Walker, who was joined in issuing the opinion by a panel that included Justices Bob McCoy and Lee Gabriel, was blunt in the assessment of evidence in the case.
“There is no body, no murder weapon, no witnesses, and no blood or DNA evidence; there are no fibers or hairs or any type of forensic evidence establishing that a murder occurred or linking Charles to a murder; and there is no confession or directly incriminatory statement by Charles,” the opinion states. “We hold that, viewed in the light most favorable to the State, the cumulative force of the circumstantial evidence and any reasonable inferences from that evidence that could be considered incriminating are insufficient to convince any rational factfinder beyond a reasonable doubt that Charles acted with the requisite [criminal intent] necessary to support his conviction for murder.
“Accordingly, we ... render a judgment of acquittal.”
Charles Stobaugh initially cooperated with investigators after the family reported that his estranged wife had vanished. No one saw Kathy Stobaugh after the night of Dec. 28, 2004, when she left her car parked in Charles Stobaugh’s driveway after traveling there to talk about their divorce, which was to be final the next day.
However, it wasn’t until Kathy Stobaugh failed to report to work as a teacher at Nocona Elementary School the following Monday that her daughter, then 16 years old, reported to police that she was missing.
Cary Piel, who, together with his wife, Susan Piel, prosecuted the case, said he disagreed with the court’s opinion.
For example, the injuries of a person who fell down a flight of stairs don’t say anything about the intent of the other person still standing at the top of the stairs, he said.
“Mental states are almost always inferred from the evidence,” said Cary Piel, who now works for Jackson & Hagen, a criminal defense firm. “People don’t usually communicate what they are thinking.”
The court’s opinion appears to question, in part, the jury’s thoughtfulness as members heard testimony over several weeks and then deliberated the case for about 10 hours, he said. Prosecutors talked with the jury members in private for about three hours after the trial was over.
“They were very aware of what they were doing and were very conscientious,” Cary Piel said.
The only way to reverse the acquittal is for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals — the state’s highest appeals court in criminal cases — to overturn the Second Court of Appeals.
If the higher court refuses to hear the district attorney’s appeal, called a petition for discretionary review, Stobaugh’s acquittal would be final, he said.