By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Afternoon testimony at the Morgan Junction murder trial on Wednesday centered on a sort of riddle: If you say you had X drinks during the time frame Y to Z, how did that equal a .20 blood-alcohol level five hours after the last reported drink?
That was part of a day of testimony in the murder trial of Lovett “Cid” Chambers that carried none of the drama of preceding days, which had featured segments of the video showing his “confrontational” – as even police acknowledged – questioning by Seattle Police Homicide Unit detectives. Wednesday, though, included no video, just testimony related to specific points of evidence and how it was processed and/or analyzed.
The day began with the cross-examination of SPD CSI Detective Kim Biggs. Her direct testimony had ended last Thursday, but King County Superior Court Judge Theresa Doyle allowed the defense to postpone cross-examination until they had had a chance to deal with the fact the prosecution had asked her to take another look at Chambers’ BMW, which has been in police storage since hours after the January 21, 2012, shooting.
Defense attorney Ben Goldsmith asked about how the weather that night – cold and wet – might have affected the crime scene and whether that had been a concern for Biggs.
“I don’t know – it often rains in Seattle,” she replied drily.
He asked whether “civilians” had been at the crime scene near the bullet casings found along Morgan Junction Park right before it was taped off; Biggs said she didn’t know.
Once again picking up and displaying the shovel that Travis Hood, 35, was said to have been holding (in a batter’s stance) when Chambers, then 67, shot him, Goldsmith noted that it had been measured as 4’10” long. He then referred to the Colt .45 gun, found by police on the kitchen table at Chambers’ home after they arrested him. With a photo of the gun on the table shown on the large portable monitor, facing the jury, Goldsmith asked Biggs to agree that it was “fair to say the (gun) was not hidden in any way” – it was on the table, car keys next to it, other items on the table including prescription medication in the background.
Asked about what was done as Chambers’ BMW was towed from the garage at his home to the SPD processing room, Biggs said repeatedly that she was not in charge of the actual process of seizing the car, but she confirmed CSI started processing it on January 24, 2012, two days after it was impounded.
“None of the detectives asked you to obtain DNA evidence on the outside of the car?”
“None of them asked for DNA evidence from the door handle?”
The second focus of his questioning went to the key point of what prosecutors asked Det. Biggs to re-examine recently – the car’s locking system, at issue in Chambers’ contention that he was being “attacked” at his car. Biggs was questioned about a lock/unlock button on the car’s central console and whether it worked even if one or both of the car’s two doors was open. She said she believed it did.
Did it work if a door was partially latched – locked but not closed all the way?
She said she had not tested that, nor whether both doors lock/unlock simultaneously when a key is turned in the lock.
And then cross-examination turned to the pickup truck belonging to Hood’s friend Jamie Vause, who was out drinking with him that night at the Feedback Lounge, where Chambers also had been drinking just before the shooting less than a block north of that bar.
Biggs confirmed Goldsmith’s description of the truck – dented, scratched, dirty, with a chipped windshield – and of the items found in it, as brought up in earlier testimony, including a knife in the truck bed, a glass pipe, and two purple plastic containers that had been described previously as used to hold marijuana.
Photos were shown, as were subsequent photos of what was found inside Chambers’ car, including a neck pillow, an inhaler, and a paper bag from a drugstore.
Goldsmith concluded cross-examination by having Biggs agree that if she opened an envelope of evidence and found items such as the bullet casings covered in dust, with handprints, it would be “surprising.”
Prosecuting attorney Margaret Nave took over with re-direct questioning after the morning break, asking Biggs to again explain what she does to make sure a crime scene is preserved once she gets there: “Make sure patrol officers are guarding the scene, have put up tape, are making sure that no one (other than police) is going into the scene.”
“Did that happen here?”
Biggs also testified that she neither knew, that night, what Chambers had told police that night, nor what the BMW had had to do with the crime scene, only that it was the suspect’s vehicle. When she and other detectives examined it later, she said she was aware “the defendant had claimed there had been a struggle on the passenger side of the vehicle.”
Nave then asked if water spots on the car were “consistent with what would be (on it) from having been driven or towed.” Biggs said they were. And she was asked again to confirm the components of her testing of its locks, as well as other items in the back of Vause’s pickup, including twigs and white cable.
Following with re-cross-examination (after the original testimony, each side gets the opportunity to ask followup questions – re-direct, re-cross, etc. – until both sides say they have “nothing further”), Goldsmith’s main point was, “Regardless of whether you knew the BMW’s role in the crime, you knew it was important enough that there was a search warrant for it and that you were entitled to search the car for trace evidence, including DNA.”
And once more, Biggs was asked about the door locks. She tested them with the key fob, she said, and that didn’t work, but when she tried the button on the car’s central console (shown in a photo as next to its stick shift), it worked.
The last point came from Nave, who had Biggs affirm it was standard operating procedure to impound a suspect’s vehicle.
The next witness, Asa Louis from the State Patrol toxicology lab, took the stand after a discussion outside the jury’s presence – most days, they are sent out of the courtroom at least once so that the legal teams and judge can settle a point of law and/or admissibility (much of which was discussed weeks earlier) about testimony just complete or just about to start. It had to do with some of the technical points he was expected to make.
And technical it was. As with other forensic scientists who have testified, Louis was first asked to detail his background, and his work, “looking for substances that might not normally be in a person’s system and substances that might have contributed to death .. or, there was an observed behavior, and we’re asked to determine if there’s a chemical in the system that might have contributed to it.”
When they test fluids, it could be more than blood or urine … it could even be “eyeball fluid,” Louis said. The first test that’s done looks for “the most common volatiles” – such as alcohol. Next, a “presumptive screen that takes a look at 10 different classes of drugs” to see if there are “markers” for any – “cocaine, opiates, barbiturates, methamphetamine, that type of thing.”
Additional testing might follow, such as a “basic drug screen (that can) look at about 100 different compounds all at once” and “specific confirmatory tests.”
He described equipment used in the tests, such as gas chromatography, involving what he said would be familiar to viewers of the TV shows “CSI” and “NCIS” as “the brown box with all the buttons.”
Getting further into the technical points, Louis got up to draw on the courtroom’s easel – which happened more than a few times during his testimony (the easel was pointed away from the gallery, so we couldn’t see what he drew).
He finally was brought to the point of his analysis of the blood drawn from Chambers about five hours after the shooting, which led in turn to a detailed description of how samples are stored and processed. The lab gets up to 90 samples a day, Louis said, including blood from people arrested for DUI. And he stressed that the lab provides services to law-enforcement agencies but is not itself “part of law enforcement.”
Testing the blood sample labeled as being from Chambers, he said, that first “volatiles” test came back positive. A second try “confirmed the concentration … positive for ethanol.” The “presumptive test … came back negative for all compounds we screen for by that method, so no further testing (along those lines) was done.”
Chambers’ blood-alcohol level of .20 (more than double the .08 that state law defines legal drunkenness) was determined from results showing .203 in the first test, .205 in the second test, Louis testified.
Prosecutor Nave (remember, this is still the prosecution’s case, after three 4-day weeks of testimony) resumed questioning after the lunch break. She asked Louis to talk about how ethanol works. It’s a CNS – central nervous system – depressant, he explained, that “slows down the function of the brain.”
Its effects on cognitive (thinking) abilities could include a person jumping to the wrong conclusion, overreacting, mood swings, losing inhibition, he said.
How might a blood-alcohol level of .20 affect someone? For one, Louis said, that would bring “significant trouble” while driving, even on familiar routes.
Is everyone affected by alcohol in the same way? “Not necessarily,” Louis replied – some would have higher tolerance. But at .08, he said, you would lack the ability to react quickly enough to “unknown situations.”
Then the questioning arrived at Widmark’s Equation (explained here), one of the technical points noted in the aforementioned discussion that the lawyers and judge had before his testimony. Shortly after it was introduced, there was another round of discussion outside the jury’s presence. Judge Doyle said it would be important that the jury understood which points of discussion would be “hypotheticals.”
As testimony resumed, Nave outlined what had been described as Chambers’ alcohol consumption that night over a span of a little over three hours preceding the shooting – four martinis, a shot of liquor, and a glass of wine.
Louis said the “rate of elimination,” with alcohol leaving the system, is “roughly one standard drink per hour.” If those drinks were indeed ingested starting around 6:30 pm, that would have meant a blood-alcohol level close to zero by 11 pm (again, remember that the tested blood was drawn at 3 am). Blood-alcohol levels peak around 45 minutes after the last drink, Louis said, adding that the elimination rate “falls under zero-order kinetics – the rate of elimination is the same over time regardless of the amount drank.” That said, some people, he noted might have higher or lower elimination rates, and there is an “uncertainty budget” in analysis, considering variables all the way down to how the instrument is working.
His subsequent descriptions focused time and again on this being “always an estimate” – even the blood-alcohol level, in the sense that they can’t get to the “infinite decimal place” and have to settle on .20, even if they had tested to, in this case, .203025.
So, defense attorney Lauren McLane picked up on cross-examination following the mid-afternoon break, that .20 could cover a range from .183 to .217. And, “no scientist is infallible,” she declared, with Louis agreeing.
McLane quoted from an expert’s article discussing how the body absorbs and distributes alcohol, and quizzed him further about the calculations that had been discussed, before the jury was dismissed for the day so that the lawyers and judge could spend a few minutes discussing where she was going with that. The issue will be settled before Louis returns to the stand when testimony resumes Thursday.
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)