By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Punctuating two Seattle Police witnesses’ testimony about evidence, a passerby witness was put on the stand Tuesday by the prosecution in the Morgan Junction murder trial.
They started the day listing six witnesses they thought they would get through – but in the end, only three of them were heard from, the first one a holdover from Monday, the third one to continue today.
Between legal arguments and breaks, total testimony time tends to add up to about 4 1/2 hours a day.
As Tuesday began with SPD fingerprint examiner Betty Newlin continuing on the stand, questioned by deputy prosecuting attorney Mari Isaacson, the subject was fingerprints and their presence or lack of same on pieces of evidence in the case.
Newlin spoke of processing evidence including three .45 casings, two loaded gun magazines, the wood-handled shovel, a gun described as a “Colt NK 4 Series 80 .45 caliber weapon with a single .45-caliber bullet,” a Wilson combat magazine, holster” … She confirmed each piece of evidence was what she had processed, often verifiable through some mark she had left on the bag, or in the case of the gun, the box in which it was contained.
Indecipherable-to-the-layperson images were shown on the courtroom monitor; this is not the type of traditional fingerprint image you might imagine, with swirls and lines, but something more akin to a particularly dense Rorschach test. Newlin was asked about processes and precautions. When evidence is going next to DNA testing, she explained, they wear double gloves and masks and use sterile equipment. One point elicited by Isaacson – they cannot tell how long a print has been on an item, only that it is there.
During brief cross-examination, defense attorney Lauren McLane displayed an image on the monitor – another series of dabs and blobs, almost in the shape of the state of Washington, as it appeared from where we sat – and asked Newlin, “Would it surprise you to know that card was lifted from a wet, dirty surface?” Her reply: “Not really.”
After the morning break, the passerby, a West Seattle resident named Joel who said he was headed the night of the January 21, 2012, shooting to Beveridge Place Pub (south of the Morgan Junction Park-side shooting scene) and was driving his pickup truck through the area, “slow(ing) way down” to see if the pub was crowded, when, he testified, he in succession heard a noise “to the west of me,” saw a person “with arm raised,” heard four gunshots, and saw “what looked like the flash from a gun” outside a parked pickup truck. And he recalled seeing a “silhouette in the truck move.” He said he knows the sound of gunshots because he grew up “in a hunting community in Michigan.”
He then drove to what he called his “secret parking space” for the pub, near the cleaners/market north of the park, and turned around to look toward what he thought he had just seen: “I didn’t want to get out of my vehicle until I (thought) it was safe.” The truck’s passenger door was open, with someone standing outside it, he said, and an arm was extended to “grab the passenger door and close it.” He saw another person get into a blue BMW parked on the same side of the street as the truck, in what he believed to be the southernmost on-street parking spot alongside the pub; that car then “turned a U’ie on California Avenue” and ended up behind a bus, headed north.
“A group of people had formed outside the pub pretty quickly,” he recalled noticing, by the time he felt it was safe for him to get out of his truck and walk that way. He said he called 911 and gave a statement to police after they arrived.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Ben Goldsmith, he acknowledged that he did not see the people involved well enough to fully describe them with aspects such as age, race and gender, and that he did not see the weapon.
Starting shortly before the court’s lunch break, and for the rest of the day, SPD CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) Detective Kim Biggs was on the stand.
As with other witnesses from public-safety/criminal-justice agencies, she was first taken through an explanation of her background and what her agency does. At SPD, Det. Biggs said, “CSI is so small, it mostly just responds to major crime scenes – primarily homicides. We deal with the scene and with the evidence. We don’t talk to witnesses, we don’t talk to prospective suspects, we just look at the evidence, and ‘what does the evidence tell us happened?'” CSI’s work includes taking pictures, mapping and diagramming the scene. And she noted that “early in a scene, not much is known, usually,” so potential evidence is sought “based on the knowledge you have at that time.”
CSI packages pieces of evidence and takes them back to the SPD processing area for close-up photography. But: “We don’t do any of the lab work – we’re not scientists; we’re police detectives”; the lab work is done by the State Patrol Crime Lab. That said, Biggs testified, CSI does some “presumptive testing,” such as using a substance to deduce at a scene whether a “reddish-brown stain” is blood or not, or testing for particular metals to see if a bullet had gone through something.
The questions from prosecutor Margaret Nave turned to the night of the shooting. Biggs said she had been asleep when awakened for the callout around 11:30 pm. She was the primary CSI person on the team that night and gave directions to others upon arrival, including the detective who packaged the evidence.
Photos of the scene were displayed on the monitor, first with placards visible, indicating where bullet/shell casings were found, then with the shovel that Travis Hood was said to have been holding when shot, its blade in a planting bed, its handle in the street. Other photos showed what Biggs described as “a large blood pool, and blood drops.”
The questioning then honed in on the firearms-related evidence. Biggs asked for her briefcase, which had been left on a courtroom bench, and pulled out a pair of blue disposable gloves (prompting Nave to say she didn’t have to do that, as there is a box of gloves in the courtroom) before cutting open an envelope whose contents she described as “one fired, hollow-point bullet recovered from placard #1.” The bullet was in a petri dish.
Next, she was given the casings found at the scene, and those within earshot learned a new term, “bullet-catchers,” which Det. Biggs explained “allow you to pick up a casing from the street without touching it.”
Photos were shown as she described the manufacturers’ markings on each casing – one a “WW .45 auto” that she said carried a “firing-pin mark,” meaning it had been fired; a “Federal .45 auto”; then a “Spear .45 auto.” Then she was asked to verify that the shovel in the courtroom was the one she had examined.
“Any other evidence at the scene?”
“Photographs are considered evidence, and we diagrammed the scene,” Biggs replied.
After about two hours at the scene – never a fixed time, she said: “I keep the crime scene open until I’m satisfied” – the evidence was placed in a CSI van and driven back to the SPD processing facility. Biggs said she also was asked to go to Chambers’ home; a search warrant had to be written and signed first, and police “were looking for a judge to sign it.” One was found, and Sgt. Steve Strand (who has already testified) “arrived with a signed search warrant at 3:10.”
Once detectives could enter the house, “what CSI was looking for was firearms. … We were directed [by other police] into the kitchen, and specifically on the kitchen table …” they found a gun and holster.
A photo of the table, which appeared to be partly cluttered with a variety of other items, was shown, and then a closeup of the gun, described as loaded.
Another photo focused on a “fanny pack” and its contents, including a holster holding another gun – a 9mm pistol – that were found. Det. Biggs said the pack also contained “money, cards, a picture, odds and ends.”
Nave: “Could you determine who owned it?”
Biggs: “It appeared Sara Chambers owned the gun.”
Photos and questions then moved to the CSI’s indoor processing room where cars are examined for evidence; Biggs said access is limited, “only CSI and latent-print examiners.” Photos showed what was identified as Chambers’ blue two-door BMW; Biggs said its wheel had been damaged, but the rest of the car had “no major damage,” though it carried water stains. She explained how investigators hold flashlights at an angle to look for a “disturbance in water marks” in a case like this; she also talked about the car’s “C pillar,” part of the rear-window frame; in the photo, black marks could be seen from “fingerprint powder” that Biggs said had been applied “with a little brush.” Smudges on the car would have had “no color” before the powder was put on.
They did not look for prints on all sides of the car and were not asked to, Biggs said. But it was searched thoroughly, including the console, where she reported finding a mailbox key and an “unfired cartridge.”
The day’s court session came to an abrupt end 17 minutes before the usual 4 pm adjournment; a juror suddenly spoke out – something they don’t do – to say she was not feeling well and needed, urgently, to leave the jury box. Superior Court Judge Theresa Doyle decided to adjourn at that point; Det. Biggs will be back on the stand, still under initial prosecution questioning, when court resumes at 9 am today.
SIDE NOTE: Today marks two weeks since the jury was seated and began hearing presentations. If you’ve lost track, the prosecution is still presenting its case; the defense will begin calling its witnesses once prosecutors are done, perhaps in another week or so, according to the guesstimates they’ve offered aloud in the courtroom (outside the jury’s presence). The trial officially began in early January as the lawyers and judge went through a variety of motions, shaping in many cases what evidence can and cannot be shown and what questions can and cannot be asked.
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)