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After intense arguments, ex-detective's murder case goes to jury
LOS ANGELES (AP) ' Jurors in the love-triangle murder trial of an ex-police detective were asked Tuesday to decide if Stephanie Lazarus killed her romantic rival or was the victim of a DNA frame-up.
Prosecution and defense lawyers made intense arguments for two days before Superior Court Judge Robert Perry instructed the eight women and four men about the law and told them to begin deliberations in the 26-year-old case that rests on the power of DNA evidence to incriminate.
Jurors deliberated less than two hours before going home without reaching a verdict.
Lazarus is charged with bludgeoning and shooting to death Sherri Rasmussen, who married the man that prosecutors said was loved by Lazarus.
The long dormant cold case was resurrected when a forensic expert discovered an evidence swab containing DNA from a bite mark on the victim's arm. The sample was matched to Lazarus.
Prosecutor Shannon Presby argued that the case was based on more than just the DNA.
"This case is a banquet of evidence and this is just one course," he said.
He pointed to bullets that matched those issued to police officers ' even though Lazarus' gun was never found. And he spoke of Lazarus' consuming obsession with John Ruetten, the man she wanted to marry.
When she enticed Ruetten to have sex with her days before his wedding, Presby said it was "ammunition and manipulation," and he yielded.
"He made a mistake," he told jurors. "Many people make mistakes."
Ruetten was in the courtroom listening to final arguments.
Presby ridiculed defense theories that Lazarus' DNA was planted in a test tube during the decades that it lay dormant in a freezer at the Los Angeles County coroner's office.
"This is a ridiculous, farcical explanation," he said. "What's the motive for framing Stephanie Lazarus? She was a police officer. She was liked by her family and friends."
He urged jurors to accept the theory that Lazarus' DNA wound up in a bite mark on the arm of Rasmussen because Lazarus bit her during a furious attack.
Defense attorney Mark Overland insisted the DNA meant nothing because the collection and storage of the genetic material years ago was so poor it made the evidence untrustworthy.
Overland raised multiple questions he said prosecutors failed to answer, including why no other DNA from Lazarus was present at the crime scene, why broken fingernails found there could not be traced to her, and why none of her blood or fingerprints were found.
"There are so many questions and so few answers," Overland said.
Addressing jurors at the end of his speech, he said,, "I've done all that I could. See if you can answer all the questions. Stephanie Lazarus now is in your hands."
In rebuttal, Presby said some questions are unimportant and will never be answered.
"What was the defendant thinking when she decided to go over there?" asked Presby. "I don't know."
He told jurors the only questions they must answer are whether Lazarus killed Rasmussen and "did she make a deliberate cold-blooded decision to kill?"
Rasmussen, 29, was killed in 1986 in the condominium she shared with her new husband, Ruetten.
At the time, Lazarus was a young police officer. By the time work by cold-case investigators led to her arrest in 2009, she had been promoted to detective, working in a unit that specializes in crimes involving art. She had married a fellow officer and had adopted a daughter.
She was summoned by her co-workers and told that she was a murder suspect based on a single piece of DNA evidence.