Jury Contemplates Ex-detective's Murder Case

Published March 7, 2012 8:54AM (EST)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Jurors who entered the mysterious world of DNA evidence when they began hearing the case of ex-police detective Stephanie Lazarus have begun their deliberations with both the prosecution and defense asking them to consider more than just the genetic key.

The eight women and four men began their deliberations Tuesday after hearing two days of intense final arguments. They were to resume their talks Wednesday.

The statements by prosecutors and defense attorneys came on the heels of more than three weeks of testimony in a case that lay dormant for 26 years and was resurrected by the discovery of a bit of DNA taken from a bite mark on the arm of a slain woman.

In 1986, when Sherrri Rasmussen was found bludgeoned and shot to death in her condominium, DNA had not entered the language of courts or the forensic tool box of prosecutors.

Without the scientific discovery, Lazarus might never have been arrested. Her attorney noted in closing arguments that other evidence such as blood, fibers, hair and fingerprints from the crime scene could not be linked to her.

"There are so many questions and so few answers," said defense attorney Mark Overland. He suggested to jurors that the DNA, the heart of the prosecution case, should not be trusted because it was poorly packaged and stored over the decades.

"I've done all that I could. See if you can answer all the questions." said Overland. "Stephanie Lazarus now is in your hands."

But a prosecutor argued that DNA was only part of the case against the once respected policewoman.

"This case is a banquet of evidence and this is just one course," said Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby. "This is not the only piece of evidence."

He pointed to bullets used in the crime 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 who married Rasmussen three months before she was killed. A broken heart, he said, was one of the elements of this crime.

With a deathly pale Lazarus seated at the counsel table and her now white-haired ex-boyfriend in the courtroom audience, Presby showed a photo of the couple in their college days, dressed up for a party. Ruetten wears a flower in his lapel and both of them smile into the camera. Jurors also saw wedding pictures of Ruetten and Rasmussen.

Lazarus did not look at the courtroom screen where the photos were projected.

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 of claims of a DNA frame-up.

"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 the slain Rasmussen because "she bit Sherri when she attacked her."

Presby acknowledged the case is riddled with mysteries which may never be answered.

"What was the defendant thinking when she decided to go over there?" asked Presby. "...I don't know."

He argued that all questions don't need to be answered.

"It's not necessary to decide why the defendant went over there," he said. "It's interesting but it doesn't need to be answered."

He told jurors the only questions they must answer is whether Lazarus killed Rasmussen and "did she make a deliberate cold blooded decision to kill?"

At the time, Lazarus was a young police officer. By the time she was arrested 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.

Presby, the last lawyer to speak, countered the original police theory that Rasmussen was killed by burglars.

"This was not a burglary," he said. "But the defendant did steal from Sherri. She stole every day from that day to this with all the joy and pain that Sherri would have experienced. Everything that makes up a life the defendant stole."

He concluded, "I implore you to use your common sense. There's only one profile of a killer in this case. I ask you to do justice for Sherri Rasmussen and find the defendant guilty of first degree murder."

By Salon Staff

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