Morgan Junction murder trial: How the shortened week ended

March 28, 2014 at 2:03 am | In Crime, West Seattle news | Comments Off

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

After an abbreviated Wednesday session in which the ailing defense team “powered through” the proceedings, as Judge Theresa B. Doyle put it, she granted their request to put the Morgan Junction murder trial into recess Thursday for an extra day off, so it resumes on Monday.

The defense is likely to rest its case next week after calling witnesses including defendant Lovett “Cid” Chambers‘s wife Sara Chambers.

Wednesday’s testimony started with vocabulary and ended with testing

The former Rocksport bartender who says she clashed with shooting victim Travis Hood over his use of the N-word was back on the stand as the day began.

Defense attorney Lauren McLane was questioning the witness, Tara, as court resumed. The major issue with which both sides spoke with her in the remainder of her time on the stand had to do with a transcript of her pretrial interview talking about Hood, who she said had used the offensive word so much that she had to confront him about it.

Prosecutor Mari Isaacson, on re-cross-examination, focused on the transcript saying Tara cited “one major altercation” with Hood, never mentioning a second incident about which she testified the day before. “Those are my words,” she said of the transcript. “… I said there was one major altercation, but I met him twice …” Prosecutors hadn’t asked her previously how many times she met him, she said.

Isaacson kept pressing, “You never mentioned the additional incident.”

Tara retorted, “You never asked me about the additional incident.”

The discussion, after repeating a few rounds of that, ended with something of a deadlock. McLane then asked, on re-re-direct, “Do you have any reason to be lying?”

“No.”

Next defense witness was a private forensic investigator, Kay M. Sweeney, proprietor of Kirkland-based KMS Forensics, which he said he opened after “retiring” about 20 years ago. His work includes crime-scene response/reconstruction and trace-evidence examination.

All the expert witnesses have been asked about their rates, and so we’ll note Sweeney’s: $200/hour. He was contacted by the defense in connection with Chambers’s BMW, which had already been in police storage almost a year by the time they contacted him in December 2012: “Your interest, as I understood, was in collecting fingerprints from selected areas on that vehicle … discussion also included potential for including DNA samples.”

He examined and photographed the car, particularly the areas that have been discussed in ongoing testimony – the passenger-door handle and exterior of the car’s trunk (the defendant says the victim and/or his friend Jamie Vause banged on the trunk and opened the car’s door, part of why he felt he was in danger).

Specifically, Sweeney testified, he looked for evidence of fingerprints and “ridge detail” (a type of handprint), saying he noted evidence of that as well as “palm details” on some areas of the trunk lid.

In addition to using powder and tape to try to get prints, Sweeney also said he swabbed the trunk lid for DNA; those swabs went to Technical Associates in Southern California, whose case manager was among the previous day’s witnesses.

The oft-discussed water spots on the car – which was towed from Chambers’s garage to the police processing/storage facility hours after the shooting – were brought up by defense attorney Ben Goldsmith, in the context of whether Sweeney had been able to tell whether potential prints were “above or beneath the water spots.”

The witness said he hadn’t been able to tell – they might have been present before the “smearing” he had noticed on the car.

In subsequent cross-examination by prosecutor Margaret Nave, Sweeney acknowledged he didn’t have contextual information about when the case happened, that most law-enforcement agencies don’t have covered storage facilities, and that there was no way to tell how long the “smears” had been on the car. One “palm touch” area, he said, happened after dust collected on the car (in the storage/processing facility).

Another private-forensics-firm witness was next, Keith Inman from California. He too went through a long list of credentials and qualifications, more than 20 minutes’ worth. And his compensation – $250/hour; he estimated he had billed about $12,000 for this trial so far.

His specialties include body-fluids analysis and DNA. The latter is vital, he noted, because “if you have the wrong person, DNA has a really good chance of showing you that’s the case.”

Goldsmith questioned him about certain types of testing kits that had been mentioned by the Technical Analysis witness the day before (Identifiler and MiniFiler) and about using kits to analyze low-level and/or “degraded” DNA samples. Inman also talked about “touch DNA,” which has come up often in the trial, reiterating the point that just because someone’s “touch DNA” is not found in a location doesn’t mean they haven’t touched it – whether or not you leave any behind is “highly variable.” The variables he listed included how long since someone last washed their hands, how often they might have touched their face (“or other body parts”) – especially their mouth, since “saliva is very rich in DNA-containing cells” – and whether they were sweating.

He also discussed how DNA can break down over time, because of factors including light, heat, moisture, and microorganisms.

Bottom line to his testimony was that the samples taken almost a year after the shooting yielded “a very, very low level of DNA.” And what was obtained, was in “conditions (that) scream out degradation.” In other words – this witness, too, said not much could be figured out from the DNA testing of the exterior of Chambers’s car.

Samples included and were affected by “many of the factors that dilute and degrade DNA … soil, water, passage of time,” he said, also observing, “I expect that if Mr. Chambers handled his car as we all do (our own), we would find traces of his DNA there, but we don’t, and that to me is significant.”

Ultimately, he concluded, given the state of what was tested months later, “we really have no idea what DNA was present on the car right after the incident.” On the other hand, asked by Goldsmith, “After you reviewed all the results, is it still possible (Jamie) Vause touched the passenger-door handle on January 21, 2012?”

“Yes.”

Asked the same question about Travis Hood, the witness had the same reply.

Cross-examined by Nave, Inman acknowledged he wasn’t present when the car was swabbed, so he had no firsthand knowledge of packaging or precautions.

“Where would you look for the driver’s (DNA)?”

“Obviously the steering wheel, but that’s inside, and the driver’s side door handle.”

“And there was no swabbing from that side.”

“Only thing I have is what I have.”

“And you can’t say there was any DNA on the car at the time it was seized, or not.”

“No – it wasn’t sampled at the time.”

The day’s proceedings ended when both sides had no further questions for Inman, around 2:30 pm Wednesday, compared to the usual 4 pm-ish. The defense team weren’t alone in needing time to heal; some gallery regulars were ailing, too.

Wednesday marked exactly five weeks from the day the jury was seated and began hearing the case. If the schedule goes as expected from here, they might be hearing closing statements, maybe even deliberating, by the six-week mark.

****

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:

Trial report, Tuesday 3/25/2014 (Five defense witnesses)
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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