Defense rests in ex-detective's murder trial
LOS ANGELES—The defense rested Tuesday in the love-triangle murder trial of former Los Angeles police detective Stephanie Lazarus, a case dating back 26 years.
Lazarus' lawyer, Mark Overland, ended his two-day presentation focusing on three letters that have defined the case -- DNA.
Overland suggested in questioning a witness that critical genetic evidence linking Lazarus to the murder of her romantic rival was mishandled in an era before the value of DNA was known.
Prosecutors have pinned their case on a sample of saliva taken from a bite mark on the arm of victim Sherri Rasmussen in 1986. The evidence sat dormant until DNA analysis was done nearly 30 years later, first showing a woman was involved then linking it to Lazarus.
Overland, who conducted aggressive cross-examination of prosecution experts during the three-week trial, is expected to tell jurors in final arguments that the DNA sample was contaminated during the many years it was rolling around in a box in the cold case section of the police robbery-homicide division.
Lazarus, 51, has pleaded not guilty. In the last moments before he rested his case, Overland put his arm around her and the two whispered.
"Your honor, Ms. Lazarus rests," Overland then told Superior Court Judge Robert Perry. She did not testify in her own defense.
The courtroom was filled with spectators, including Rasmussen's widower, John Ruetten, who had been Lazarus' boyfriend before he married the nurse. His tearful testimony about her murder was a dramatic point of the trial.
He sat with Rasmussen's parents across the room from Lazarus' mother, brother and other relatives who have attended every day of trial.
Overland called homicide detective James Nuttall as one of his final witnesses. He was assigned to the Rasmussen murder in 2009 and case documents were transferred to him in the Van Nuys section of the Los Angeles Police Department. But he acknowledged that one piece of evidence did not reach him -- the envelope containing saliva swabs from the bite mark.
He identified an inventory list and said, "It appears it never made the transfer list. It should have transferred to Van Nuys and it didn't."
After a brief court break, Nuttall said the missing piece of evidence was eventually located. Prosecutor Paul Nunez pointed out that it had already been analyzed for DNA by a forensic expert.
The judge refused to allow testimony from Jeffrey Alden Thompson, a former assistant director of the police scientific investigation division who testified outside the jury's presence about ways in which DNA can be contaminated. He faulted those who worked on the Lazarus case for failing to write down everything they did.
Judge Perry said, "I don't think it necessarily shows the lab was deficient. They just weren't recording it." He also said the director did not do the work on the case.
Rasmussen was found shot and bludgeoned to death in her condo on Feb. 24, 1986. She and Ruetten had been married for three months. Prosecutors claim Lazarus killed her in a jealous rage.
However, Overland called two friends of Lazarus -- a college roommate and a woman who went through the police academy with her -- to portray her as a young woman with many friends who was a bridesmaid for one and attended the wedding of the other. One friend said she hosted a shower when Lazarus adopted a child. Both women said she was never a violent person.
Jurors also saw a diary kept by Lazarus in which she talked about men she was dating. Ruetten was not mentioned. The final witness was a fingerprint expert who said prints found at the crime scene did not match Lazarus.
Final arguments were scheduled for Monday.