By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
A 40-minute primer on DNA testing led off the third day of witness testimony in the Morgan Junction murder trial.
It was courtesy of state crime lab forensic scientist Katherine Woodard, who testified about testing evidence gathered at the scene of the January 21, 2012, shooting for which 69-year-old Lovett “Cid” Chambers is charged with second-degree murder.
The testimony most likely to be revisited later involves what she said about what was not tested – the passenger door handle of Chambers’ car, which he contends was pulled open in a threatening move moments before he shot and killed 35-year-old Travis Hood.
Besides Woodard, Tuesday’s witnesses were two Seattle Police officers who had been part of the response the night of the shooting – one where it happened, alongside Morgan Junction Park; the other, at Providence Mount St. Vincent, where Hood had been taken by his friend Jamie Vause.
Early in the day, Vause’s upcoming testimony was again the subject of arguments made by the legal teams to Superior Court Judge Theresa Doyle outside the presence of the 15-member (including three alternates) jury. The argument was about what he might say, how it might compare to a statement by a police officer, and how he might be impeached and subsequently rehabilitated.
The discussion wrapped up around 9:30 am, and it was time for testimony to begin.
Woodard, from the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab – which does testing for criminal-justice agencies around the state – took the stand (which is really a seat, a chair between the judge’s “bench” and the jury “box,” which also is really just two rows of chairs).
As with most expert witnesses, time was taken to establish her credentials – 12 years at the lab, after time in the private sector, with a degree in cellular/molecular biology. She estimated she’s testified as a DNA expert about 25 times before.
The courtroom’s big-screen display monitor was used for slides explaining DNA testing, narrowing in on the specific types done by the lab, particularly “STR” – short tandem repeat, looking at repeating genetic sequences that help distinguish individuals.
After explaining how testing is done, she was asked about “degradation” of samples, which included a mention that the person who last handled something is not always the person who will have the most DNA on that object.
This specific case finally became the focus after more than 40 minutes. Woodard recounted receiving for analysis a pistol, magazines, swabs from the shovel that Hood was holding when he was shot, and a small folding knife. These items were present in court, and some were handled during Woodard’s testimony – she and the lawyers all wore gloves when touching the items.
It was noted that she had begun working on the case in June 2012 – almost five months after Hood’s death and Chambers’s arrest.
She described what she swabbed and tested, and explained that the work was done in line with a “case scenario,” explained as testing “what’s likely to give us the best answers, a guide to go by.”
There was a “blood indicatory sample” on the shovel, found lying across the curb and street where it fell when Hood was shot. On the knife, Woodard said, the blade was found to have Hood’s DNA; the handle indicated DNA of two people, mostly Hood.
After an hour, prosecution questions ran out, and the defense team’s senior lawyer Ben Goldsmith began his cross-examination. He hoisted the shovel – the most sizable piece of evidence shown in court to date – and asked how decisions are made regarding what will be tested and what will not. It’s under the direction of investigators, Woodard replied. And the DNA must be compared to “reference profiles” – it is not just tested to come up with an ID of whose DNA it might be, it is compared to someone’s DNA for reference. The detective with whom Woodard worked on the case, she testified, had not asked for analysis of whether Vause’s DNA was on the knife, only whether Hood and/or Chambers had DNA on it. And, she confirmed, there was no request to test for DNA on the passenger door or trunk of Chambers’ BMW.
Many variables go into test samples. At this point, we learned that “some people are sloughers” – they shed more skin cells than others. And then we learned that many factors can “degrade” a sample, even a change in temperature.
Exposure to water and sand could wash DNA off something like a door handle, Goldsmith sought to confirm – something mentioned in his co-defender Lauren McLane‘s opening statement, their contention that the condition of the car, towed along wet, gritty streets and then stored, made it impossible to get a good DNA sample.
But, he said yet again, you were “never asked to check the passenger door handle.”
No, Woodard affirmed, she was not.
The morning ended on that note, and the customary hour and a half lunch break ensued. Woodard returned to the witness stand when it was over, though not for long – just a few more questions, from both sides, about aspects of degradation of DNA samples.
Next witness was questioned by the senior member of the prosecution team, Margaret Nave: SPD Detective Tanya Kinney, who was a patrol officer the night of the shooting, in the William-1 sector, focused around the Alki area, but for an incident like this, she said, it was typical for just about everyone in the precinct to rush that way. “All we heard was, shots fired at that location, possibly a truck involved … my purpose was to go to the scene and see where they need me.”
Having gone through special “evidence training,” Kinney was assigned first to take photos of the shell casings found at the scene; she also placed numbered placards over them, “to make it easier for CSI” (the Crime Scene Investigation team). Photos were shown of the placards, and of the scene in general, including the yellow crime tape, and some blood spatters – the first graphic evidence shown, and – audibly – a difficult moment for friends and family of the victim, who have been in the gallery daily, a box of tissues nearby.
Kinney did not touch the evidence, she testified – that’s for the CSI detectives (who arrived, she said, around 12:30 am); her job was to make sure it was not tampered with, and she continued to assist with containment of the scene even after she was done with photos and placards (the latter of which blew away a few times that night, she said).
Her next job, assigned by a detective, was to start “logging the scene” – keeping track of which officers/detectives came and went. Her log from that night was placed into evidence, and a few points reiterated before her hour or so of testimony ended.
Following the afternoon break, the day’s final witness was SPD Officer Brandon McDougald. On the night of the shooting, he was headed to the scene at Morgan Junction Park when he heard the victim had shown up at Providence Mount St. Vincent, to which he was closer.
He explained that it “looks like what most people would think of as what a typical medical center would look like” (the reason Vause has given for why he drove his wounded friend there).
Upon his arrival, he saw Seattle Fire Department medics “working on somebody lying on the ground just outside the front door of the facility.” Standing to the left of the person on the ground was Jamie Vause, who McDougald said told him that he was the person driving the red pickup truck (seen leaving the shooting scene), and that the person on the ground was who he had brought from that location. McDougald subsequently had Vause get into his patrol car so he could “take a statement.”
He described Vause as “very coherent … I didn’t smell any alcohol on him .. he seemed rather in shock.”
After talking with Vause, McDougald said, he drove him back to his house. And then he had one more task related to the investigation: He was asked to go to the suspect’s house in Gatewood to impound the BMW.
It had been backed into a detached garage behind the house. McDougald said he had been given the task because he knew how to drive a stick shift. The tow truck arrived at 4:07 am (by which time six hours had elapsed since the shooting), and he followed it to the SPD processing room at Park 95 (off Airport Way).
McLane cross-examined him, at which time he said he wrote Vause’s statement and Vause indicated it was correct and signed it. On redirect from Isaacson, the officer was asked if he found “anything memorable” when he checked Vause’s background. “Not that I recall.”
The lawyers were done questioning him at 3:45, too close to the 4 pm adjournment time to call another witness. At least two SPD officers who were mentioned Tuesday morning as expected afternoon witnesses were yet to come, so we expect they’ll be called Wednesday.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE AND BACKSTORY: Links, in case you are catching up:
Charge reduced to second-degree murder (August 9, 2013)
Charges filed against Chambers (January 25, 2012)
Coverage the night it happened and the morning after (January 21-22, 2012)