Defense attorney reveals mishandling of DNA evidence in Lazarus murder trial
By Alex Alonso
Streetgangs.com Staff Writer
February 9, 2012 | 11:58 p.m. PST
Supervising criminalist of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office, Dan Anderson, testified Thursday morning regarding the policy and procedures of receiving and maintaining evidence in the Stephanie Lazarus murder trial. Lazarus is accused of the 1986 murder of Sherri Rasmussen when she was an LAPD officer. Lazarus was arrested in 2009, while she held the rank of detective, and booked on first degree murder charges because investigators believed that Lazarus harbored resentment towards Rasmussen after she married her ex-boyfriend.
Under direct examination by Deputy District Attorney Paul Nuñez, Anderson told the jury that there are specific protocols met to maintain the integrity of evidence at the coroner’s office. Anderson was not an employee of the coroner’s office when Rasmussen’s was killed in 1986, but he was the supervisor when the LAPD re-opened the Rasmussen case in 2004.
Is the DNA evidence enough to convict Stephanie Lazarus for the 1986 killing of Sherri Rasmussen?
- Yes, she will be convicted of 1st degree murder (58%, 115 Votes)
- Hard to say, I don't know (17%, 33 Votes)
- Yes, she will be convicted of 2nd degree murder (10%, 20 Votes)
- No, she will be acquitted (8%, 16 Votes)
- No, she will receive hung jury (7%, 11 Votes)
Total Voters: 199
The cotton swabs that were collected in 1986 by criminalist Lloyd Mahaney were placed in a tube with a red screw top and stored with the coroner’s office for nearly 19 years when the LAPD realized that the bite swab might reveal more information about Rasmussen’s killer using modern DNA testing that was not widely available in 1986.
During opening statements on Monday, defense attorney Mark Overland suggested that the evidence against Lazarus is not reliable and under cross examination of Anderson, the jury learned that the coroner’s office did not adhere to published guidelines regarding the preservation of bite swab evidence, which states that it should have been stored in one of the five freezers in the evidence room that the jury learned about during Joe Murillo’s testimony on Tuesday. Additionally it was to be stored in sequence order by case number, which it was not.
Anderson testified that when the coroner’s office received a priority request from the LAPD on December 20, 2004 for the bite swabs, the coroner’s office could not find the evidence. The bite swabs were eventually found two days later on December 22, 2004, but the package that stored the tube was damaged and defense attorney Overland wanted to expose the coroner’s office handling of this critical evidence as shoddy.
DNA testing on evidence gathered from the Rasmussen crime scene started on December 2, 2004 with other items including a dish towel, a finger nail, and a couple of blood samples, but the LAPD crime lab did not have the bite swab at that time. We never learned where the bite swabs were found nor did we learn for how long the evidence was not in its proper location, but after the coroner’s office informed the LAPD crime lab that they found the samples, they picked up the swabs on December 30, 2004 to begin testing.
Although Overland wants to exploit the apparent mishandling of the bite swab evidence, on re-direct, Anderson told the jury that only the packaging or envelope had been compromised, but not the tube that stored the swabs. Overland came back at asked if the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the envelope was to maintain the integrity of the contents, and Anderson agreed. Overland also showed an exhibit from the coroner’s office that outlined six imperatives to ensure the “value” of evidence, and point four states that evidence should be kept “secure and packaged” which was not done with the bite swab. Although 18 years is plenty of time for envelopes to degrade, there were no random quality checks of the evidence over time to ensure the integrity of the packaging material. Overland also pointed out that the bite swabs was maintained in tube that had a red screw top that could easily be removed.
This may become a point of contention for the jurors when they deliberate, because there may be some jurors that are willing to exclude the evidence of the bite swab based on poor handling, while others may be willing to overcome the damaged envelope and the misplaced swabs since this is a case that goes back to 1986. If a juror decides not trust the bite swab evidence, then they would have to believe that Lazarus’ DNA was deliberately placed in the evidence tube by an LAPD officer that had access to the DNA sample that was recovered from her when she was under surveillance, and that is exactly where Overland it trying to go.
Three LAPD detectives that had access to Lazarus’ DNA when she was under surveillance all testified during direct examination by Deputy District attorney Shannon Presby that they had no animosity, anger or hate towards Lazarus, to eliminate the notion of any type of frame-up.
There was also testimony from LAPD detectives Roberto Morales, Dante Palacio and Sergeant Jim Hensley that focused on secretly obtaining a DNA sample from Lazarus and testimony from Jennifer Francis, a criminalist for the LAPD who conducted DNA tests on evidence from the Rasmussen crime scene. Friday morning will resume with testimony from Francis.
Alex Alonso is an author, film maker and founder of Streetgangs.com. He is also a contributing author in the 2010 book entitled Black Los Angeles: American Dreams Racial Realities (New York University Press). He can be reached via email, toll free at 800-249-1324 or on Twitter.