Jury deliberates case of LAPD detective accused of murder
The jury in the murder trial of former Los Angeles police Det. Stephanie Lazarus began deliberations Tuesday afternoon after listening to Lazarus’ attorney and a prosecutor make their final arguments for acquittal and conviction.
Lazarus is accused of the 1986 beating and shooting of Sherri Rasmussen, who was married to a man Lazarus had dated. Prosecutors have argued throughout the monthlong trial that Lazarus, who was 26 at the time of the killing and had joined the LAPD a few years earlier, was deeply in love with the man and driven to kill by the jealousy she felt over his decision to marry someone else.
At the time of the killing, detectives overlooked Lazarus as a suspect, despite pleas from the victim's family that they look into the possibility, and instead pursued a theory that she was killed by burglars. The case went cold and remained so until 2009, when detectives reopened it and followed a trail of evidence that led them to one of their own.
The panel of eight women and four men filed into the jury room mid-afternoon, after a morning spent listening to Lazarus’ attorney, Mark Overland, and Deputy Dist. Atty. Shannon Presby finish their closing arguments. Overland, as he has throughout the trial, tried to cast doubt on the prosecution’s most damning piece of evidence: a sample of saliva taken from a bite mark on Rasmussen’s arm that DNA tests showed camd from Lazarus. Overland has tried to convince jurors to disregard the saliva because of what he said were questions about how the cotton swab containing it was stored over the two decades and the possibility that someone may have tampered with it. He also focused on the fact that traces of DNA that did not belong to Lazarus were found beneath Rasmussen’s fingernails. The jury went home for the day and will continue deliberations in the morning.
Presby rebutted these gambits forcefully, telling jurors that Overland was spinning and misrepresenting the evidence in the case “in a desperate attempt to fool you.” The idea that there was someone capable of pulling off such a complicated frame-job against Lazarus was “a ridiculous, farcical explanation,” Presby said, adding that Lazarus was the only one with a clear motive to hurt Rasmussen. He also reviewed at length testimony about a small revolver Lazarus owned, which matched the type used to kill Rasmussen and that Lazarus reported stolen shortly after the killing.
Lazarus, 51, was arrested in 2009, after more than 25 years on the job. Her arrest capped a highly secretive four-month investigation, in which undercover officers followed her for weeks in order to surreptitiously gather a sample of her DNA to compare to the crime scene saliva. They eventually managed to collect a cup she discarded. The idea that a fellow cop may have committed such a brutal crime and then hidden the secret for so long landed like a bombshell in the insular world of the LAPD. Further complicating matters were the uncomfortable questions about why detectives at the time had not looked more closely at Lazarus as a possible suspect.
Unable to post the $10-million bail the judge set in the case, Lazarus has remained in custody since her arrest.
-Joel Rubin at Los Angeles County Superior Court in downtown L.A.