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Prosecutors in Stephanie Lazarus murder case focus on DNA evidence

December 7, 2009 |  2:29 pm

Lazarus Prosecutors in the case of Stephanie Lazarus, a veteran Los Angeles Police Department detective accused of murdering the wife of an ex-boyfriend more than 20 years ago, focused today on a gory piece of evidence that promises to play a central role in the sensational trial: saliva collected from a bite mark left on the victim.

In testimony on the opening day of Lazarus’ preliminary hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court, a former criminalist from the L.A. County Office of the Coroner recalled responding to the bloody crime scene and collecting the saliva sample from a bite mark found on Sherri Rae Rasmussen, a 29-year-old hospital nursing director who had been badly beaten and shot several times.

Lloyd Mahanay, now retired from the coroner’s office, told of swabbing the wound on Rasmussen’s forearm and later logging it in to the agency’s evidence room along with other forensic evidence.

Needing only to show that there is sufficient evidence to justify sending Lazarus, 49, to a trial, prosecutors did not delve deeply into the evidence today. DNA tests performed on the saliva, however, are what eventually tied Lazarus to the killing and led to her arrest by fellow LAPD detectives in June -- 23 years after the killing.

If, as expected, the judge orders Lazarus to stand trial, the saliva will be the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case. Lazarus was led into the courtroom wearing an orange, jail-issued jumpsuit, her hair braided and handcuffs on her metal chain belt. She sat quietly throughout the morning’s proceedings, sometimes whispering with her attorneys.

Sitting a few feet away in the front row of the gallery, Rasmussen’s parents looked on stone-faced and expressionless.

Lazarus’ attorney, Mark Overland, lost a bid during the morning court session to have the case dismissed. Judge Robert Perry rejected an argument by the lawyer that the original homicide detectives on the case missed obvious clues and evidence that should have identified his client as a suspect.

That oversight, Overland said, deprived Lazarus of her due process rights, since she must now defend herself against the charges so long after the crime was committed and when some evidence has been damaged or lost and memories of witnesses have faded.

Perry acknowledged that Lazarus may be at some disadvantage, but not enough to merit dismissing the case, adding that there was no evidence that police had intentionally tried to stall solving the case.

Overland, during his cross-examination of Mahanay and another coroner official, sought to lay the groundwork for a line of argument he is likely to pursue during trial.

He asked questions about the signatures on evidence tracking forms in an early attempt to raise doubt over whether the saliva and other pieces of evidence were properly secured and stored over the years.

Three months after they were married, Rasmussen's husband returned to their Van Nuys condominium on the evening of Feb. 24, 1986, to discover his wife's lifeless body on the floor in the living room.

Homicide detectives, convinced Rasmussen had been killed by a pair of burglars, worked futilely on the case for years. Like thousands of other homicides from the period, the case eventually went cold and collected dust on storage shelves for more than two decades.

Detectives returned to the Rasmussen killing in February, testing the saliva sample. The DNA tests showed the attacker was a woman, disproving the theory that Rasmussen had been killed by a man.

Detectives retraced the investigation, once again interviewing Rasmussen’s parents and her former husband. As they had at the time of the killing, they told investigators about Lazarus, who John Ruetten had dated for several years shortly before meeting Rasmussen.

An undercover officer surreptitiously trailed Lazarus as she did errands, waiting until she discarded a plastic utensil or other object with her saliva on it. The DNA in her saliva was compared with the DNA evidence collected from the murder scene. The genetic code in the samples matched conclusively, police and prosecutors have said.

The case has captivated and shocked many in the department, who knew Lazarus, 49, as a well-respected, 25-year veteran detective. Lazarus is married to another LAPD officer and the pair have an adopted daughter. If convicted, Lazarus could face the death penalty.

-- Andrew Blankstein and Joel Rubin

Photo: Stephanie Lazarus at a June court appearance. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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