Morgan Junction murder-trial defense continues with five witnesses in one day, from SPD to DNA

March 26, 2014 at 4:00 am | In Crime, West Seattle news | Comments Off

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

gavel.jpgBetween the start and finish of proceedings on Tuesday, five witnesses had spent time testifying for the defense at the murder trial of Lovett “Cid” Chambers – one of his friends, one of his relatives, a bartender, a DNA analyst, and a police officer.

Tuesday began with cross-examination resuming for the defendant’s older sister Betty Wynne. Prosecutor Mari Isaacson first offered something of an apology for the concluding moments on Monday, when Wynne seemed distressed and confused by the questioning.

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” she offered.

Wynne, for her part, again contended she hadn’t opened up to the prosecution during an earlier phone interview “because I didn’t know you and I don’t usually talk about family things over the phone, and I really didn’t know who I was talking to …”

Regardless, Isaacson had to press on, so she did, somewhat gently, while Wynne replied somewhat more testily than the day before.

Asked which prisons she’d visited to see her brother, Wynne said she couldn’t “pinpoint that … at the time I had problems, and family, and kids, and I was busy taking care of my own thing.” She also contended that trying to remember what happened “40 or 50 years ago” was difficult.

“You said the changes in him were for the good,” said Isaacson.

“Well, that’s my opinion looking at him, and we were happy for my brother.”

“You never saw him act in a way that caused you to worry about his mental health?”

“Well, as a family, like I keep telling you, we did not discuss all that stuff … you of course have concerns about your family, but I’m having a hard time answering your questions.”

Isaacson tried to remind her that this had all been discussed in their earlier phone interview. No, Wynne said, she had never seen her brother drunk; though they lived quite a ways apart, she saw him at least once a year.

“Even during those visits you never saw him act crazy?” asked Isaacson.

“What do you mean, ‘act crazy’?” protested Wynne. “He’s not an ‘act-crazy’ person, he’s calm and reserved.” Shortly thereafter, she apologized in a way: “Your questions are tricky – I’m sorry.”

Isaacson also asked Wynne if she knew her brother had a gun. The reply: “No.”

In re-direct questioning, defense attorney Lauren McLane noted that one of the first questions prosecutors had asked Wynne in a telephone interview had been about her exact relation to Chambers, who had a different father. “We were always sisters and brothers, there was no ‘half’ … we never called anybody ‘half-sister, half-brother’.”

Minutes later, in re-cross-examination, Isaacson called attention to a transcript of that conversation and pointed out it wasn’t as if they jumped right to that question: “There’s about a page of introduction and pleasantries” first. Also in that call, she had told prosecutors her brother had changed “for the good.” In re-re-direct right afterward, McLane sought to have Wynne clarify she still had concerns about his behavior, such as where he chose to sit during one visit.

Next on the stand, Seattle Police Officer Michael Renner, one of the officers who was on duty the night of the shooting. He said he had gone to various scenes that night – for example, after hearing on the radio that the victim had left the scene with someone, he drove toward Harborview Medical Center on First Hill because “it’s not uncommon” for someone who’s been shot to be taken there by a friend or relative.

Then he heard the victim had instead turned up at Providence Mount St. Vincent – a retirement/rehab facility – and went there, where he wound up being given shooting victim Travis Hood‘s wallet so ID could be used to identify him. He subsequently followed the medic unit taking Hood to Harborview and stayed there while Hood went through hours of surgery. Leaving Harborview, he went briefly to the Homicide Unit office with Hood’s wallet, and briefly spoke with Homicide Det. Cloyd Steiger (who testified as a prosecution witness and was shown on video questioning Chambers, often confrontationally, hours after the shooting).

Officer Renner said he proofed a search warrant being written by another officer, and that he assumed the case had been assigned to the Homicide Unit by then. He said he was surprised that someone from that unit was not writing the search warrant: “it was their case, they know the probable cause, they should be writing the warrant, that’s my personal opinion.”

He next wound up at Chambers’s house, helping Officer Brandon McDougald – who testified for the prosecution last month – process the suspect’s car.

Asked if he had experience in having vehicles towed for impound, Renner laughed. “I have a great deal of experience … I do a lot of DUIs, so I impound a lot of vehicles.” He said he “liked” handling collision cases, and that overall he probably has been responsible for the impounding of thousands of cars.

“What precautions can be taken to protect potential evidence?”

They can be covered and taken to impound on a flatbed, he said, then adding that a flatbed towing vehicle would generally be used if a vehicle is too heavily damaged to be taken in any other way, or “potentially to protect evidence on the outside of the car.” He was not asked to take that kind of precaution for Chambers’s BMW, he said. After he saw that it reached the SPD processing room in SODO, that was the end of his involvement with the case.

In cross-examination, Isaacson had him note that the case was not yet a homicide when Renner first responded. To the point of who was writing the search warrant, he agreed that time is of the evidence when getting one. And regarding the BMW having not been “wrapped,” she asked how often he had seen that done to any car. He said he could only recall one, “a long time ago,” involving a car inside which two people had been shot.

Next witness: Pierre Rodrick, the friend with whom Chambers had been drinking at the Feedback Lounge just before the shooting. They had been friends for at least eight years, he said, hanging out together at the Feedback and neighboring Beveridge Place Pub, and going to shooting ranges in Renton together – trap shooting (clay pigeons) with shotguns, and pistol shooting.

Rodrick spoke about aspects of Chambers’s visits to the Feedback that had come up in early testimony – a particular place he preferred to sit, “if you walked in the door, to your immediate left.”

The night of the shooting, Rodrick said, he got to the Feedback around 8 pm, having had dinner in Burien with a friend, then calling Chambers, asking where he was, and if he could come meet up with him – the bar was on his way home. He parked his car on Beveridge Place, the small street between the two bars.

Was Chambers the only African-American at the Feedback that night? “I believe he was.”

He said that, in addition to two beers during dinner in Burien, he had several Viking Fjord martinis at the Feedback and while not getting drunk, “I’d had enough.” He recalled buying Chambers a drink. Asked about his friend taking issue with a certain type of glass in which he was served a drink that night, Rodrick said, “Cid liked his drinks the way he liked his drinks. … Instead of a wide-open-mouthed martini glass, (this one) was kind of a flute. He liked a wide glass, with lime. He might have grumbled (about the glass) a bit, but as far as a scene or being irritated, I’d say, no.”

It was about 9:30, he said, when they said their goodbyes. He headed toward the door; Chambers, he said, headed toward the restroom. Rodrick said he didn’t see anyone outside as he walked to his car, got in it, and drove northbound to his nearby residence.

Cross-examined by prosecutor Isaacson, Rodrick said he didn’t recall any specific topic of conversation with Chambers. He also said he had never seen his friend drunk, and did not actually see him leave that night after they parted ways, so he doesn’t know for certain if Chambers had more to drink after they said their goodbyes.

Finally, Isaacson had Rodrick confirm he had never been to Chambers’s house before the shooting (afterward, he said, he had gone to see the defendant’s wife), and that he didn’t know much about his past.

The jury was sent to lunch early so that the lawyers and Superior Court Judge Theresa B. Doyle could discuss a defense request: Calling two other friends of Chambers as witnesses, to speak to how he responded to racial slurs made to “try to get a rise out of him.”

Defense lawyer Ben Goldsmith insisted the prosecution was trying to imply that Chambers had simply overheard Hood and friend Jamie Vause using the N-word (Vause testified that it was a variant ending in -a instead of -er and used as a term of familiarity) and overreacted. Implausible, he argued, saying, “You don’t get to be a 69-year-old African-American man who’s lived through segregation (etc.) if you (go ballistic) every time someone calls you (a slur) … unfortunately, it’s a fact of life (that happens).”

Prosecutor Margaret Nave countered that she did not believe they had “opened the door to everyone who has ever known the defendant coming in to say, no, he did not overreact to racial slurs.”

Judge Doyle considered the arguments during the lunch period and, afterward, turned down the defense’s request, ruling the door had not been opened to evidence about how Chambers reacted to racist words in the past.

That dispensed with, it was on to the day’s fourth witness, Jessica Bickham, assistant director of the private California DNA-testing/consulting firm Technical Associates, hired by the defense. As she was led through questions about her qualifications and how the lab works, she said the company has billed about $15,000 for services in the case so far, including the general price of $1,100 to $1,400 for each sample they test.

She talked about testing/examining evidence swabs from Chambers’s BMW – specifically, its “exterior rear-deck lid” and its passenger-door-handle area.

Bickham testified that she suspected from the start that the samples “might be difficult to work with,” because they had some “discoloration,” meaning “inhibitors” might be present.

She described the analysis procedures in detail, including various attempts at “magnification” in hopes something could be detected. Though the lab usually only processed half its samples, saving the other half in case of future need, Bickham said she went on to test the second half of the samples in this case, hoping that they might yield what the first half had not. But ultimately, even though she managed to eliminate the “inhibition,” she said, “extremely low levels of DNA (were) present in the seven samples … based on the amounts of DNA I was seeing on each … I was not confident I could get good (results).”

She kept trying, even using a different kind of testing kit designed for “samples that seem degraded or very low-level.”

She had reference samples from Chambers, Hood, and Vause, but still had only “inconclusive” results while trying to find DNA from any of them on the rear deck lid (you might recall, the defense says Chambers reported one of the other men banging on the outside of his car trunk).

She couldn’t detect any of the men’s DNA on the passenger-door handle either. That didn’t mean they hadn’t touched it – only that no detectable DNA matchable to any of them was in the sample.

Under cross-examination, Bickham confirmed that she had not been told background facts about the case, and that the company had not generated a report about the testing. She also confirmed that she had done one more “exclusion check” at the urging of the prosecution, following a phone conversation. And she was asked about the timeline for her firm’s involvement – contacted by the defense in December 2012, lab work in March 2013. “Did you know the date the (shooting) occurred?” Her reply: No.

She also agreed that while it’s ideal if evidence is kept in a pristine state, as Nave put it, that’s “generally not the case.”

And she said all she could tell for sure about the door-handle sample was that it had DNA from “at least one male,” but nothing more could be determined.

In re-direct questioning, Goldsmith had Bickham clarify that while the company did not “prepare a written report,” there was a 160-page case file documenting procedures, “chain of custody” for samples, photographs, and more.

The day’s final witness was Tara, who worked as a bartender at the Rocksport sports bar in The Junction for five and a half years before it closed to make way for development (she said she currently tends bar at an establishment outside West Seattle). She knew Chambers from his visits to the Rocksport, describing him as “relaxed and really confident,” and she knew Vause and Hood – the former more than the latter, because of a “pool league” in which they played.

She spoke of two occasions during which she said Hood was at the Rocksport with Vause and “repeatedly … throwing out the N-word, and it’s not something I like to hear, so I told him to knock it off … he kept using it, so I said, you guys ought to go somewhere else.”

Asked by McLane what context it was used in, she explained, “His demeanor and the way he was speaking were derogatory – it didn’t matter who he was speaking to, it was rude.” A few weeks after that, she said, he came in, and he “kept saying the word … in every sentence.” That time, she said, she asked Vause why he hung out with Hood, and Vause explained, she said, that “he’s from another world, from the South”; Hood himself, she said, would simply reiterate “I am who I am and I’m gonna be who I am.”

Isaacson’s cross-examination suggested that Tara had only mentioned one of the aforementioned run-ins when she was interviewed as part of pre-trial preparation, and a transcript was offered as proof.

“Just because it isn’t here (in the transcript) doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – maybe I wasn’t asked (the right question), and if one is a (situation) I’m going to find more offensive than the other, that’s the one I’m going to mention the most.”

Asked for further context in which Hood had used the N-word, she listed: Talking about what kind of music should be played, talking about “his boys back home when he was down South” and “slapping his buddies on the shoulder, just throwing around the word a lot.” But, she said, she could not be certain if it was being used in a negative manner; she does recall it was not directed to “strangers,” but, she said, “I don’t see why that matters.” She also said he was not directing it toward anyone who happened to be African-American.

The prosecution suggested she had told them Hood eventually apologized, but she said the transcript was wrong.

McLane started re-direct questioning just before court was ended for the day, and will continue when today’s session begins around 9 am.

ADDED 9:22 AM WEDNESDAY: Back in court for the day – both defense lawyers are sick but here. The judge has granted their request to adjourn when their witnesses for the day are done, and to be in recess tomorrow so they can get well. So after today, court will not be in session until next Monday (March 31st).

****

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:

Trial report, Monday 3/24/2014 (Cross-examinations dominate the day)
Trial report, Thursday 3/20/2014 (Defense’s 1st witness continues)
Trial report, Wednesday 3/19/2014 (Prosecution rests, defense begins)
(No court Monday-Tuesday 3/17-18 due to illnesses)
Trial report, Thursday 3/13/2014 (Prosecution calls final witness)
Trial report, Wednesday 3/12/2014 (More blood-alcohol-level discussions)
Trial report, Tuesday 3/11/2014 (Interrogation discussion, autopsy photos)
Trial report, Monday 3/10/2014 (Confrontational video continues)
Trial report, Thursday 3/6/2014 (Car controversy; Chambers on video)
Trial report, Wednesday 3/5/2014 (Defense protests surprise, calls for mistrial)
Trial report, Tuesday 3/4/2014 (‘Police and a passerby’)
Trial report, Monday 3/3/2014 (‘Back to the background’)
Trial report, Thursday 2/27/2014 (Jamie Vause’s second & final day on the stand)
Trial report, Wednesday 2/26/2014 (Jamie Vause’s first day on the stand)
Trial report, Tuesday 2/25/2014 (DNA analysis, police)
Trial report, Monday 2/24/2014 (5 more witnesses)
Trial report, Thursday 2/20/14 (first witnesses)
Trial report, Wednesday 2/19/14 (opening statements)

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