California Past is present in finale of murder trial

By Linda Deutsch

AP Special Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The past was present in a courtroom where former police detective Stephanie Lazarus sat before a judge while the man whose love she is alleged to have killed for watched in the courtroom behind her, his face as grim as hers as lawyers recounted a 26-year-old tragedy that brought them here.

"The motive was jealousy, one of the darkest and deepest of human emotions," Deputy District Attorney Paul Nunez told jurors Monday in the first part of the prosecution's closing arguments of a trial that has riveted attention in law enforcement circles.

The case was expected to go to the jury Tuesday after concluding arguments.

Lazarus was an honored member of the police force, specializing in art forgeries, when her world fell apart in 2009. She was summoned by her co-workers and told that she was now a murder suspect based on a single piece of evidence -- a swab containing DNA from a bite-mark on the arm of a murdered woman.

The woman was Sherri Rasmussen, 29, who died in 1986, bludgeoned and shot to death in the condominium she shared with her new husband, John Ruetten, Lazarus' ex-boyfriend.

Nunez argued Lazarus should be convicted on the basis of the DNA swab and circumstantial evidence including her alleged obsession with Ruetten. Defense attorney Mark Overland said the same DNA should exonerate her because it was corrupted over the years and means nothing.

He ridiculed the claim of a fatal attraction between Lazarus and Ruetten saying she never tried to reunite with her former lover after his wife was gone

"So this obsessing with John must have fizzled out I guess," he said.

Overland pointed out that Lazarus went on with her life, marrying another policeman and adopting a daughter.

Her husband has attended most sessions of the trial along with other family members. Ruetten sits across the courtroom with Rasmussen's family.

Nunez focused on jealousy, which he said drove Stephanie Lazarus to kill her romantic rival, Sherri Rasmussen. He said Lazarus might have remained free if DNA had not entered the forensic world.

"Twenty-six years ago, the defendant thought she had gotten away with it ... that she had committed the perfect crime," Nunez said.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, overwhelming evidence of the defendant's guilt," he said. He said DNA was her undoing.

Overland countered that DNA is a matter of probabilities and not positive proof. He also argued that the DNA sample from a bite mark on the victim's arm had been compromised over years of improper storage

Nunez showed jurors gruesome pictures of Rasmussen dead in her condo, blood smearing her face and body under a deep red robe.

While some witnesses suggested the two women had fought each other, Nunez portrayed Lazarus as a hunter going after Rasmussen with premeditated fury, seeking revenge against the woman who had married the man Lazarus loved.

"It wasn't a fair fight," Nunez said. "This was prey caught in a cage with a predator."

Overland said the prosecution case had been "fluff and fill" but for the bite mark.

"The entire case is based on circumstantial evidence with one item of evidence as the centerpiece," he said.

He argued, however, that the "centerpiece of the prosecution case cannot be trusted because its integrity has been compromised."

He reminded jurors that the torn envelope containing the DNA tube was missing for a time and was located only after a search of many freezers in the coroner's office. He said its condition violated coroner's rules for preserving evidence.

"If you don't do that," he said, "it doesn't have any value."

Nunez said the DNA, whether it was deteriorated or not, belonged to Lazarus.

"Degraded DNA doesn't turn into someone else's DNA," he said. "You just get less of it."

Lazarus denied committing the murder during an hour-long videotaped interview with her colleagues, excerpts of which were played for jurors. In it, she appeared flustered and said she had little memory of ever meeting Rasmussen.

The defense showed during the trial that the bite-mark DNA was extracted from swabs in an unsealed tube contained in a torn envelope.

Overland previously challenged firearms experts on whether the bullets that killed Rasmussen could have come from a gun owned by the police officer. The gun, which was reported stolen, was never found. No fingerprint evidence was linked to Lazarus and prosecutors suggested she knew to wear gloves and wipe away evidence.

Overland said Rasmussen was most likely killed by burglars, a theory that had been favored by the first investigators in the case.

Published: Wed, Mar 7, 2012