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Scandalous San Diego murder case heads back to court

September 23, 2010 |  5:54 pm

Rossum3 One of the most scandalous murder cases in recent San Diego history is heading back to court after a ruling Thursday by a federal appeals court.

The court ruled that lawyers for Kristin Rossum, who is serving a life sentence for her 2002 murder conviction for allegedly poisoning her husband, are entitled to a hearing to make their argument that Rossum was victimized by ineffective counsel at trial.

Specifically, the appeals court found that Rossum's trial counsel should have challenged the prosecution's assertion that Rossum's husband, Gregory de Villers, died from a fatal dose of fentanyl, a powerful sedative often given to terminally ill cancer patients.

"A competent attorney would not have conceded that fentanyl caused De Villers' death" without further tests, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena ruled.

The appelate court also criticized the defense attorney for pursuing an "implausible" theory that De Villers commited suicide and for not examining whether tissue samples taken from the body were contaminated before being tested.

Rossum, an honor graduate from San Diego State with a degree in chemistry, was an employee of the county medical examiner's office. She had access to fentanyl patches, as did her boss, with whom she was having an affair, according to testimony.

Fentanyl was missing from a locked cabinet at the medical examiner's office.

Rossum's appelate attorney quoted an expert -- not called during the trial -- who asserted that conflicting results from toxicology tests make it doubtful that fentanyl was the cause of death.

Instead, the attorney asserted that De Villers may have died from the cumulative impact of two other drugs that he took willingly.

In an effort to settle the fentanyl issue, the appeals court said Rossum's appelate attorney is entitled to additional tests on tissue samples from De Villers.

At trial, the prosecutor claimed that Rossum thought that fentanyl was the "perfect poison" because she knew that the kind of routine tests done by the medical examiner's office would not detect it. Instead the samples were sent to outside laboratories.

Rossum, now 34, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At trial, her attorneys argued that her husband may have commited suicide out of despondency because he knew of Rossum's affair with her boss, who was the medical examiner's chief toxicologist.

Although named an unindicted co-conspirator by the grand jury, he has since returned to his native Australia and was never called to testify.

De Villers, the son of a plastic surgeon, was a biotech worker. Prosecutors alleged that Rossum, the daughter of two college professors, simulated a scene from her favorite movie "American Beauty" by spreading rose pedals around the bedroom where De Villers was found dead.

No date has been set for the hearing  in federal district court. Such a hearing could allow a judge to decide whether to reaffirm the conviction, throw the conviction out or order a new trial.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Kristin Rossum during her trial.

Credit: Associated Press