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Former Los Angeles police detective found guilty in murder of ex-lover's wife 26 years ago
LOS ANGELES (AP) ' A former Los Angeles police detective was found guilty Thursday of the 26-year-old murder of the wife of her former lover in a case that hinged on a single piece of evidence ' DNA from a bite mark on the victim's arm.
Stephanie Lazarus was impassive as she heard the verdict. Her long-ago lover, John Ruetten, watched grimly in the courtroom with the family of his slain wife, Sherri Rasmussen.
The trial included testimony from a forensic expert who said the DNA was a match to Lazarus.
Her defense attorney countered that the DNA was packaged improperly and deteriorated while stored in a coroner's freezer for two decades. He also suggested there might have been evidence tampering.
"The family is relieved that this 26-year nightmare has concluded with the positive identification of the person who killed their daughter," said John Taylor, an attorney for the Rasmussen family.
Lazarus' family also was present. "I'm just devastated," said Steven Lazarus, her brother.
Lazarus could face 27 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole when she is sentenced on May 4.
Police Chief Charlie Beck, who had worked closely with Lazarus, apologized to the Rasmussen family for the long delay in closing the case.
"This case was a tragedy on every level," he said in a written statement. "The LAPD family felt a sense of betrayal to have an officer commit such a terrible crime."
The Rasmussen family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the LAPD and the city of Los Angeles.
Rasmussen was bludgeoned and shot to death in 1986 in the condo she shared with her husband of three months.
Detectives initially believed two robbers who had attacked another woman in the area were to blame. But two decades later, a cold case team using DNA analysis concluded the killer was a woman and authorities began looking at Lazarus as a suspect.
During the trial, prosecutors focused on the relationship of Lazarus and Ruetten, who became her lover after they graduated from college. He testified that he never intended to marry Lazarus, although they were intimate for about a year.
"It was clear she was very upset that I was getting married and moving on," Ruetten testified.
Lazarus' lawyer, Mark Overland, ridiculed the claim of a fatal attraction between Lazarus and Ruetten, saying she never tried to reunite with him after his wife was gone.
Overland also pointed to the lack of physical evidence against her. No blood, fingerprints, hair or fibers connected her to the scene.
But prosecutor Shannon Presby told jurors the case was based on more than just DNA, saying it featured "a bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart."
In court, the deathly pale defendant and her white-haired former boyfriend never looked at each other.