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Brother of accused LAPD detective criticizes judge for high bail

March 12, 2010 | 11:49 am

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/.a/6a00d8341c630a53ef01156ff0a0a3970c-800wiThe brother of a Los Angeles Police Department detective accused of murder broke his family's silence Friday, criticizing the judge in the case for setting his sister's bail at $10 million and saying she is struggling with health issues in jail.

Stephanie Lazarus, a 26-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, has been in custody since June, when she was arrested for the 1986 bludgeoning and shooting death of a woman who had married her former boyfriend.

At a bail hearing in December, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry raised eyebrows throughout his courtroom with the unusually high bail, saying he believed it was a "near certainty" that Lazarus, 49, would flee if granted a lower amount.

The amount was double what prosecutors had requested and far greater than the $300,000 to $500,000 that Lazarus' attorney, Mark Overland, had sought.

On Friday, following another hearing in the case, Steven Lazarus spoke to the media, calling on Perry to reconsider.

"The concept of innocent until proven guilty doesn't seem to prevail anymore," he said. The bail "is way unreasonable."

Steven Lazarus reiterated earlier comments made by Overland that the bail was exorbitant when compared to wealthy celebrity defendants Phil Spector and Robert Blake, who both remained free on $1-million bail during their murder trials, despite arguably having the means to flee.

The brother's comments were the first by a member of Lazarus' family since her arrest sent shock waves throughout the LAPD and garnered international media attention.

The badly beaten body of Sherri Rae Rasmussen was discovered in her Van Nuys townhouse on Feb. 29, 1986. Evidence at the scene indicated Rasmussen's attacker had bound the 29-year-old nurse's wrists before shooting her three times in the torso at close range.

Months earlier, Rasmussen had married John Ruetten, who had dated Lazarus for years before meeting his wife. At the time of the killing, Ruetten and Rasmussen's father told investigators Lazarus could be a suspect. Their suspicions were largely ignored as detectives pursued a theory that Rasmussen had been killed by two men trying to burglarize her home.

LAPD cold case detectives reopened the case last year, and genetic tests on a preserved saliva sample collected from a bite mark on Rasmussen's forearm showed it had been inflicted by a woman. New interviews with Ruetten and others led detectives to focus on Lazarus, who was arrested after her DNA was matched to the saliva from the bite mark.

Overland succeeded in getting a higher court to knock down Perry's initial order that the $10-million bail be paid in cash, but his appeals to have the amount lowered have so far been unsuccessful.

In making his comments, Steven Lazarus said the crime was "horrific, it's beyond our comprehension," but proclaimed his sister's innocence. And, in a preview of what is likely to be the defense's main strategy during trial, he tried to cast doubt on the reliability of the DNA evidence against his sister, saying it had not been stored properly and that someone had tampered with it.

It was a line of argument that John Taylor, an attorney representing Rasmussen's family, quickly dismissed.

"The court, after the preliminary hearing, heard the evidence and determined that [Lazarus] had the motive, the opportunity," to commit the murder, Taylor said. "And the weight of the DNA evidence convinced him that she was a high flight risk and set an appropriate bail."

Steven Lazarus also said his sister has not been receiving adequate treatment in jail for cancer that requires testing and adjustments to medicine every few months. He declined to specify the type of cancer or whether her condition has deteriorated in custody.

--Joel Rubin and Andrew Blankstein at the Los Angeles County criminal courthouse

Photo: Lazarus in earlier court appearance. L.A. Times file

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