Attorney claims Dale Bruner confessed to the 2010 murder of his wife before trial
SILVERTHORNE — Dale Bruner, a Silverthorne man who was convicted of murdering his wife in 2010, confessed the crime to his attorney before trial, according to statements by his former attorney in documents recently entered into the court record.
Bruner reported his wife, Stephanie Roller Bruner, as missing on the morning of Nov. 23, 2010, claiming she’d gone on a late walk the night before and never returned home. The search began that morning, and officials discovered her body three days later in the Blue River. A subsequent autopsy showed that she died from a combination of blunt force trauma to the head, strangulation, drowning and hypothermia.
Bruner was indicted on charges of second-degree murder, assault and tampering with evidence, and he was later convicted on all counts after a nearly two-week trial in July 2012. Bruner denied any involvement in his wife’s murder throughout the trial.
In September 2012, Judge Mark Thompson sentenced Bruner to 112 years in prison. The Colorado Court of Appeals later vacated Bruner’s assault convictions and sentence because they were part of the same course of conduct as the murder, reducing the total sentence to 48 years.
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In October 2019, Bruner filed a petition for post conviction relief which allows individuals to ask the court to vacate convictions under certain claims, even after exhausting other appeal rights.
In the petition, Bruner argues that he should be granted a new trial because he was denied his constitutional right to an “effective assistance of trial counsel,” essentially claiming his attorney Robert Bernhardt failed to competently represent him.
On May 15, the Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s Office filed a response to the petition, including an affidavit outlining an April interview conducted with Bernhardt, in which he defended his performance. According to the affidavit, Bernhardt told the district attorney’s office that his strategic options in trial were severely inhibited because Bruner told him he killed his wife in the early stages of his investigation.
Bernhardt told the office that Bruner initially denied murdering his wife but later admitted to the crime — detailing a string of events in which he strangled her until she was unconscious, drove her to near the river, threw her in and bludgeoned her in the head with a rock when she woke up.
District Attorney Bruce Brown said that in filing a motion claiming his attorney was ineffective, Bruner essentially opened the door for his former attorney to speak publicly in his own defense — a means for him to defend his own reputation and to prevent any potential sanctions from the Colorado Supreme Court.
“In filing a motion to say your attorney is deficient, the attorney-client privilege can be waived,” Brown said. “Otherwise, it would be unfair for the attorney to not be able to defend their decisions. It would be like suing a doctor for malpractice and not allowing the doctor to reveal the contents of their files. … You can’t attack a person who holds privilege and at the same time refuse to allow them to speak in their own defense.”
Bernhardt continued to say that he didn’t know whether Bruner was being truthful. But the confession strongly influenced how he constructed his defense in “all aspects of the case.”
In Bruner’s petition, he outlined a number of specific arguments about Bernhardt’s perceived inadequacies, beginning with the fact that Bernhardt asked for the admission of other alleged “bad acts” into evidence during trial, namely prior incidents of domestic violence and statements from his wife used to support a temporary protection order against Bruner a month before her murder.
Bruner’s complaint says that Bernhardt should have tried to exclude the statements from trial, calling the evidence hearsay and irrelevant in that they lacked any factual connection to the case. The complaint goes on to say that Bernhardt’s “failure to object” to the evidence had no reasonable strategic reason and proved vital to the prosecution’s case. It also notes that the lack of an objection hurt Bruner’s case later on in appellate court.
But the district attorney’s office, relying on Bernhardt’s interview, said he specifically wanted the evidence brought to trial in a “strategic decision” to bring Bruner’s wife’s credibility into question — noting that she made seemingly contradictory statements in petitioning for a protection order and later asking for it to be dropped — and to argue she was never truly fearful of Bruner.
Bruner’s petition also said that his counsel should have objected to allowing the jury to visit the scene where the body was found — a visit that included an escort of the jurors around the Bruner home and down a path to the Blue River. The petition argued that Bruner’s right to a public trial was violated by excluding members of the media and public from attending parts on private property and that Bruner’s conviction might have been subject to appeal had Bernhardt objected.
In response, the district attorney’s office argued that the scene visit wasn’t actually part of the trial but rather an aid to the jury in applying previous testimony, that the scene was largely public and that there were no real closures to press or community members. The office also argued that based on Bernhardt’s inside knowledge of the crime, allowing the visit could have worked in the defense’s favor, as he would have known that the crime didn’t happen in the way the prosecution speculated — for example, that the body was thrown in the river at a different location than the prosecution presented.
Bruner also argued that Bernhardt failed to object to inadmissible expert testimony about the overall credibility of domestic violence allegations and to whether Bruner could have carried his wife’s body to the river. He also complained that Bernhardt elicited an opinion that Bruner was guilty from a Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent during testimony, all of which the petition claims were detrimental to his case.
The district attorney’s office said that failure to object to evidence doesn’t represent incompetence if it is part of a reasonable trial strategy. The response noted that the expert testimony in regard to domestic violence allegations was reasonable in that the expert was uninformed about the facts of that specific case and said about 3% to 5% of allegations are false, which represented a large overall number.
The district attorney’s office argued that whether Bruner could have carried the body didn’t require any expert knowledge, and a failure to object didn’t necessarily denote any deficient performance on Bernhardt’s behalf. The office also chalked up the CBI agent’s opinion on guilt to merely a “surprise in trial” that easily could have been elicited from questions by the prosecution and that it is normal to examine the agent in charge of an investigation on whether he felt there was enough proof to secure a conviction on circumstantial evidence.
Bruner’s final argument was that Bernhardt abandoned a motion for a change of venue on the case, claiming that there was a reasonable likelihood he couldn’t get a fair trial in Summit County.
Prosecutors responded that Bernhardt indicated he had several reasons for not renewing the motion, including that investigators spoke with residents around the county and found that a majority of individuals didn’t know anything about the case and that by the time the jury selection began, the case already had garnered national media attention.
Bruner is asking the court to vacate his conviction or conduct a new evidentiary hearing on the case.
Ultimately, what happens next is up to Judge Thompson, who has the discretion to hold a hearing on the matter or rule based on the complaint and response. Brown said there is no set timetable for a ruling.
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