But in the end, a Pierce County Superior Court jury yesterday found Carol Carlson, 51, and Daniel Carlson, 31, guilty of the 1998 murder of Daniel's 27-year-old wife, Lisa, a crime prosecutors say was committed to secure custody of the couple's twin boys.
Prosecutors plan to seek 50-year prison terms for the defendants at sentencing next month.
The Carlsons' lawyer said mother and son, who have been in jail for three years awaiting trial, will appeal. "Their defense is that they didn't do it," said attorney Leslie Tolzin of Tacoma. "They're innocent."
Detective Sgt. Mike Portmann of the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, who worked on the case for nearly five years, said it was one of the most exhausting of his career.
"It was like putting together something brick by brick until, in the end, we had a building," he said.
Deputy Prosecutor Barbara Corey-Boulet described the case against the Carlsons as a carefully woven net.
"We had all these details and tiny pieces that we had to bring together," she said.
Lisa Carlson, 27, was fatally shot July 18, 1998, in a mobile home in rural Kapowsin, southeast of Spanaway, where she lived with her husband and 3-year-old sons. The Carlsons were living together but had been separated and planned to divorce.
Daniel Carlson called police to say he came home and discovered his wife dead. He told them his mother had called him at work to report that the twins had mysteriously shown up on her doorstep.
Lisa Carlson, lying on the sofa, had been shot three times. It looked like she had been killed during a robbery.
But prosecutors said the evidence proved otherwise.
Corey-Boulet said that when Daniel Carlson called 911 that night, he stated simply that she had been killed, then immediately began to give an alibi. He also suggested to police that they listen to the messages on the telephone answering machine. And he asked officers at his home if he could get some of his clothes out of the dryer.
Police experts later testified that the message machine had been altered, with one message taped over another, in an attempt to provide an alibi for mother and son. And the clothes in the dryer had been covered with blood before they were laundered, experts told the jury.
Prosecutors also presented experts who said they believed the body and crime scene had been staged, with Lisa Carlson's body placed in a demeaning pose, a move another prosecution expert suggested would not have been done by a stranger.
Jurors also heard a tape that Lisa Carlson had secretly recorded months before her death. On it, Daniel Carlson spoke of trying to strangle his wife in an earlier attack. Lisa Carlson had delivered the tape to a friend and told her to give it to police if anything bad ever happened to her.
Then, at the very end of the state's case, prosecutors suddenly presented an unexpected witness — the wife of Daniel Carlson's best friend, who told jurors that Daniel Carlson had once admitted positioning his wife's body.
Detective Portmann said he couldn't say whether that piece of evidence is what tipped the scales for jurors, but he suspected it didn't hurt.
The defense presented witnesses who vouched for the character of Daniel and Carol Carlson. And they argued that some evidence indicated Lisa Carlson may have been alive several hours after the prosecutors claimed she was slain.
The Carlsons are to be sentenced May 23.
The Carlsons' boys, now 7, live with their paternal grandfather, although Lisa Carlson's parents have visiting rights.
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org