Jury to hear of love, betrayal in detective trial

February 15, 2012 - 4:35 AM
Detective Killing

FILE - In this July 29, 2009 file photo, former Los Angeles detective Stephanie Lazarus appears in court in Los Angeles. Lazarus is accused of killing an ex-boyfriend's wife 23 years ago. A forensic expert on Tuesday Feb. 14, 2012 acknowledged in testimony during Lazarus' trial that her years of DNA analysis of evidence in the 1986 murder did not cast suspicion on the veteran Los Angeles police detective until she focused on saliva from a bite mark on the victim's arm. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — After days of DNA testimony, prosecutors planned to tell jurors the story of love and betrayal that they claim provided a motive for murder by a veteran police detective.

Witnesses were expected to talk about the personal lives of Stephanie Lazarus and the woman she is charged with killing, retrieving memories of events that happened 26 years ago. Sherri Rasmussen was slain in her home in 1986 three months after she married the man who had spurned Lazarus. Testimony about the love triangle was scheduled for Wednesday.

It comes on the heels of scientific testimony that showed the baffling murder case might have gone unsolved if a forensic analyst had not decided to take a closer look at a single piece of evidence — a bite mark on the victim's arm.

Until then it appeared this was a cold case with no suspects. Blood at the scene matched the victim but no one else, criminalist Jennifer Francis testified Tuesday. There were literally no leads.

Then, after some five years of working on the case intermittently, Francis said she focused anew on the long ignored bite mark on the victim's arm. She has testified that a saliva swatch from the bite, found in a dusty evidence box, led her to a new theory and a new suspect — Detective Stephanie Lazarus of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Lazarus showed no reaction in court to the testimony that suggested she might never have been charged with the 1986 murder if the original scientific analysis of blood evidence had gone undisturbed.

Lazarus claims she is innocent of the murder of her onetime romantic rival and her lawyer was trying to show in cross-examination that the prosecution's single important piece of evidence — the saliva from the bite mark — may have been tampered with or deteriorated over time.

At one point he asked if the evidence swabs inside a test tube were moldy by the time they got to Francis in the LAPD crime lab.

"It's hard to say," said the witness. "I did not see green growing on it."

He asked if the test tube was sealed, and Francis said it was not.

"So all you had to do was unscrew it?" asked Overland.

"Yes," said the witness.

The bright red bite mark on Rasmussen's arm was shown to jurors on a courtroom screen.

A forensic dentist testified that it appeared to be a human bite mark but Dr. Cathy Law said she did not try to match it to Lazarus' teeth because such comparisons are unreliable.

Witnesses are expected to say that Lazarus was broken hearted when her longtime lover John Ruetten, married Rasmussen. Prosecutors contend the former police detective killed Rasmussen after telling someone if she couldn't have Ruetten then nobody would.

Francis said bloody evidence from the crime scene did not suggest any suspect when she was first given the case in 2004. There was no DNA match for any person other than victim on such items as blood from the walls, a towel, speaker cord and car key, she said.

It wasn't until 2009 that Francis focused on analyzing the bite mark and discovered there was DNA on the sample that was different from the genetic profile of Rasmussen, she said.

Francis testified earlier that the bite mark DNA was subsequently compared to a saliva sample taken from Lazarus' mouth and it was a match.

The discovery shocked Los Angeles Police Department detectives who had worked with Lazarus for a quarter of a century as she rose to become a highly decorated detective specializing in art thefts.

Prosecutors, who are relying on DNA analysis of saliva from the mark, also called a series of forensic witnesses who told how the suddenly important bite mark evidence, previously buried in a dusty evidence box, now was preserved in a freezer, sent to an independent serology lab for further analysis and then returned to the custody of the LAPD crime lab.