DNA expert excludes all evidence from Lazarus except bite mark
By Alex Alonso
Streetgangs.com Staff Writer
February 14, 2012 | 11:45 p.m. PST
Testimony continued in the murder trial of Stephanie Lazarus, the LAPD detective accused of murdering Sherri Rasmussen in 1986. According to prosecutors, Lazarus murdered Rasmussen in a jealous rage shortly after she married her ex-boyfriend John Ruetten.
On Tuesday morning, DNA expert, Jennifer Francis continued of her testimony under cross examination, where attorney Mark Overland focused on the DNA tests performed on the various items collected from the crime scene in 1986. This was Francis’ third day on the stand and through a series of questions, Overland was able to establish that part of a DNA analysis requires the scientist to make some subjective assumptions. Additionally Overland was able to illustrate that all the DNA tests performed were of the STR type as opposed to the Y-STR type that the attorney suggested yielded more accurate results for detecting lower chromosome levels. Francis told the jury that the LAPD does not perform Y-STR tests.
Francis was on the stand for nearly 8 hours (7 hours and 53 minutes) with most of that under cross examination. Deputy District Attorney Paul Nunez did spend just over three hours (3 hours 6 minutes) on direct examination, with an additional three minutes on re-direct examination. On day six of the trial, Francis was the 21st witness, spending more time on the stand than any witness thus far.
Judge Robert Perry tried several times to speed up the trial by interjecting his questions, but Overland continued to proceed at his pace working hard for his client, mostly trying to create doubt in the DNA tests and results through a series of question that appeared to be designed to confuse the DNA testing process to possible make jurors feel that it is not reliable.
An important point that Overland established was that, other than the bite mark, none of the blood found in Rasmussen’s home or her car matched Lazarus. The only relevant DNA that the juror will consider is that of the bite mark that was left on Rasmussen’s arm. Rasmussen’s killer stole her car and there were trace amounts of blood found near the ignition and Lazarus was also excluded as being the contributor of that blood. According to the prosecution, Lazarus stole Rasmussen’s car as part of staging the scene to appear as a burglary and robbery.
At times, Overland was able to draw on perceived weaknesses in the DNA testing process and in some inconsistencies in of Francis’ testimony. For example, Overland asked if she was the only person to perform analysis and the samples from the Rasmussen crime scene. Initially she answered yes, but Overland presented a log that showed two other persons having performed analysis on some of the same samples Francis worked on.
Overland also pointed out a minor calculation error made by Francis
that was related to a dilution that occurred in the wrong tube. Francis noted the error on her log and corrected it, but Overland asked her about the details of that error which she was not able to recall. Ultimately, the DNA science was not undermined and the DNA evidence matching the bite mark to Rasmussen’s DNA is overwhelming.
Overland has exposed some shoddy handling of the bite mark swabs that the coroner’s office had in storage. The original envelope containing the evidence was compromised over time with a gaping hole on one side of the envelope. The actual bite swab evidence was also misplaced at the coroner’s evidence room and Overland has suggested that the bite swab may have been contaminated since proper storage protocols have not been met. Nevertheless the DNA profile of the bite swab still matched Lazarus’ profile.
Additionally, this in not a case where the LAPD and the district attorney’s office can be accused of making a rush to judgment. This became a cold case until 2003 when crime scene evidence was first analyzed and it took another six years before Lazarus became a person of interest.
- September 19, 2003 – The first item from the crime scene analyzed was a blood sample done on September 19, 2003.
- October 21, 2004 – LAPD inquires about bite mark swab that is at the LA County Coroner. Apparently this crucial evidence was misplaced.
- November 1, 2004 – Francis sends email to detective Shepard inquiring about the status of bite mark swab.
- December 20, 2004 – The LA County Coroner’s office informs the LAPD that the bite mark swab is found.
- December 22, 2004 – The LA County Coroner’s office informs the LAPD that the bite mark swab is found.
- December 31, 2004 – An employee with the LAPD picks up bite mark swab evidence and deliver’s it to the crime lab where Francis works.
- January 2005 – Several tests on multiple items from the Rasmussen crime scene continue to be analyzed including the bite mark swab evidence.
- February 8, 2005 – A report was generated by Francis on all items analyzed including bite mark.
- June 9, 2009 – Report was prepared that created a DNA profile of Lazarus’ based on saliva taken from a cup she drank from which was a match to the profile of the bite mark that was in the February 8, 2005 report.
- Blood from the condominium that was collected from the crime scene belongs to victim only, Sherri Rasmussen. Only the bite mark matched the DNA profile of Lazarus.
Dr. Cathy Law, a forensic dentist, Milena Srbova, a criminalist with the LAPD that picked up the bite swab evidence from the LA County coroner’s office in December 2004, and Stacy Vanderschaff, a criminalist with the LAPD that mailed the bite swab evidence to an outside agency for further analysis also testified on Tuesday.
John Ruetten, Rasmussen’s husband in 1986 is scheduled to testify on Wednesday.
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.