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Court hears appeal in ’06 death of Vt. student

By John Curran
Associated Press / March 18, 2010

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SOUTH ROYALTON, Vt. — A man convicted in the rape and murder of a University of Vermont student took his case to the state’s highest court yesterday, his lawyer arguing that the DNA analysis that helped convict him was suspect and that he deserves a new trial.

In an appeal hearing before the Vermont Supreme Court, Deputy Public Defender Anna Saxman told justices that prosecutors did not give Brian Rooney’s defense lawyer internal validation studies the Vermont Forensic Laboratory conducted to test its own reliability in analyzing tiny samples of DNA, like the one at issue in the case.

But Assistant Attorney General David Tartter said that defense attorney David Sleigh did not request the studies before Rooney’s 2008 trial and that their findings would not necessarily have buttressed his case.

The justices, in their annual session at Vermont Law School, did not immediately rule on the appeal.

Rooney, 39, is serving life in prison for the 2006 killing of Michelle Gardner-Quinn.

The 21-year-old senior from Arlington, Va., who had just transferred to UVM, disappeared Oct. 7, 2006, while her parents were visiting Burlington for parents’ weekend.

A week later, a hiker found her half-dressed body stuffed in a crevice at Huntington Gorge in Richmond, about 20 miles away. She had been sexually assaulted, beaten, and strangled.

Rooney, a stranger who lent her his cellphone in a chance late-night encounter on a Burlington street, was the last person seen with Gardner-Quinn. But he denied harming her. He was charged 12 days later after DNA in semen found on her body matched his DNA, authorities said.

The DNA evidence was the linchpin of the state’s case at trial. Police found no witnesses to the killing, no murder weapon, and no trace evidence on Rooney’s clothing or car.

“Their entire case is predicated upon two-tenths of a nanogram in a suspect source of DNA,’’ Sleigh had told jurors.

Saxman contends that prosecutors failed to provide the internal validation studies in a bid to hamper Rooney’s defense.

Only some of the results of the validation studies backed up the state’s contention that the laboratory could reliably analyze the .24 nanogram sample it had to work with, Saxman said.

Tartter said that the validity of the state’s lab work did not hinge on whether it was a big sample or a small one and that it was the defense’s responsibility to ask for the validation studies.

In order to prove a violation of the Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to share evidence both favorable and unfavorable to defendants, it must be shown that exculpatory evidence was suppressed and that it prejudiced the defense’s case, he said.