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Stephanie Lazarus Murder Trial: Lawyers Take Center Stage

Stephanie Lazarus Murder Trial

LINDA DEUTSCH   03/ 5/12 09:21 PM ET  AP

LOS ANGELES — A prosecutor and defense attorney implored jurors Monday to consider the science of DNA and use it to either convict or acquit a former police detective in a 26-year-old, love triangle murder case.

In closing arguments, prosecutor Paul 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.

Defense attorney Mark 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. His closing argument was continuing.

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."

Rasmussen was murdered in 1986 and the evidence lay dormant until a cold-case team subjected it to DNA analysis. Investigators found a probable match in Lazarus, a veteran police detective.

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 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."

Overland said the detectives who investigated the case in 1986 had concluded that two suspects were involved and it was a robbery gone wrong.

He ridiculed the prosecution theory that Lazarus was obsessed with Rasmussen's husband, John Ruetten, who had been her college classmate and later her lover. The attorney said the theory falls because after Rasmussen was killed, Lazarus never contacted Ruetten. He said Ruetten contacted her in 1989.

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

He 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.

At the end of the presentation by Nunez, the defense moved for a mistrial because the prosecutor told jurors no alibi was presented.

The judge denied the motion, saying he did not take that as a comment on the fact that Lazarus did not testify in her own defense.

A defendant is never required to testify, and jurors are not allowed to consider a decision against testifying as evidence of guilt.

Lazarus is charged with killing Rasmussen in a pitched battle. Jurors saw photos of the 29-year-old nurse, her face bashed by her killer, her torso pierced by bullets and her arm marked by the human bite.

Rasmussen was killed there months after she was married.

Lazarus was ultimately confronted by her own colleagues in the Los Angeles Police Department where she had risen to be an expert in art forgery cases. Lazarus denied killing 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 at the bottom of an evidence box.

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.

Overland said Rasmussen was most likely killed by burglars who had committed other crimes in the neighborhood.

Prosecutors were to get the last word in the case after Overland concludes his argument. The case was scheduled to go to the jury Tuesday.

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Filed by Anna Almendrala  |