Prosecution calls final witness as Morgan Junction murder trial ends third full week of testimony

March 15, 2014 at 11:19 pm | In Crime, West Seattle news | 1 Comment

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

After 3 1/2 four-day weeks on the case, the jury in the Morgan Junction murder trial is hearing from what’s expected to be the prosecution’s final witness.

Seattle Police Homicide Unit Detective Tim DeVore has been seated at the prosecution’s table for most of the trial, until now. On Thursday afternoon, he got up and crossed the courtroom to sit in the chair that constitutes “the witness stand.” Monday morning, he will be there again.

But first, Thursday began with more discussion of blood-alcohol levels, followed by an analyst’s report on defendant Lovett “Cid” Chambers‘s gun and ammunition – how it was tested and what she believed it showed.

Phrase of the morning was “speculative retrograde extrapolation,” as State Patrol Crime Lab forensic scientist Asa Louis, a toxicology specialist, continued being cross-examined by defense attorney Lauren McLane. She had him read aloud from the writings of an expert who apparently was no fan of forensic scientists trying to make calculations from blood-alcohol analysis to figure out when someone had had her/his drink(s).

Then she zeroed in on the results of his testing of the blood drawn from Chambers about five hours after the shooting – a blood-alcohol level determined to be about .20, more than twice the .08 legal-drunkenness threshold.

Breaking that out to how many drinks the person might have had would involve utilizing an amount of alcohol that would be in a “standard” drink, she had Louis confirm, while she observed, there could be more than “one standard drink” worth of alcohol in any given drink someone has, even a glass of wine.

“And you don’t know much alcohol’s in a martini, since you told me you don’t drink.”

He confirmed that, but said he found a recipe online – 1 1/2 ounces of vodka, 3/4 of an ounce of dry vermouth.

It got more technical from there – absorption rates, elimination rates, variables, differences between genders. McLane had Louis read more article excerpts, this time from a professional journal. And finally, one bit of science she asked him to confirm: If a person who had been drinking dies, no matter what time had elapsed, the tested blood-alcohol level is a snapshot of whatever it was at the time of death, because it’s no longer moving through that person’s system.

Re-direct questioning followed, from prosecutor Margaret Nave. More reading – starting with the “speculative retrograde” passage McLane had asked him to read earlier. This time, though, there was a passage suggesting that a qualified person can indeed conduct useful testing. And Louis said he had done lab tests relating to the accuracy of “retrograde extrapolation,” finding that in general, people have a .015 burnoff rate per hour. He also said the Widmark Equation – first mentioned a day earlier – had been tested over time.

But, McLane countered on re-cross moments later, one of the definitive experts in the field has taken issue with the .015 figure.

In fact, Nave parried on re-re-direct right after that, a person’s elimination rate might be higher.

That was it for Chambers’s blood-alcohol level and related issues. Next came a witness with information about the level found in Travis Hood‘s blood, another State Patrol Crime Lab forensic scientist specializing in toxicology, Naziha Nuwayhid.

She testified that she received Hood’s blood via the King County Medical Examiner, but it had been sampled while he was at Harborview Medical Center, time-stamped 10:38 pm, less than an hour after the shooting.

First, she analyzed it for alcohol (ethanol), and then screened for different types of drugs. The blood-alcohol content, she said, was .09, slightly over the legal-drunkenness level.

The drug screen was positive for “cannabinoids,” which Nuwayhid described as “a group of chemical compounds to which marijuana is related.” However, she hadn’t been provided with enough blood to do further testing to seek more-specific information about that.

At an estimated 180 pounds, Hood’s blood-alcohol level equaled about four drinks, but Nuwayhid said it was difficult to estimate what his blood-alcohol level would have been right before the shooting, because she didn’t know if he was in the “postabsorptive phase” by then.

Under cross-examination by McLane, Nuwayhid explained that the hospital took a blood sample relatively early on because, for as long as a patient remains alive, “the liver will still be working to eliminate the drugs and alcohol, and with time (the level) will decrease, so the best sample representing what was in the person’s body at the time of the incident would be that sample that is drawn in the hospital.”

Her time on the stand was brief, and before the morning was over, another State Patrol Crime Lab staff member was called to testify, firearms expert Kathy Geil. In the requisite debrief about her background, she said she had probably analyzed more than 3,000 guns. In this case, she was asked to analyze guns, casings, magazines, and related items found. She did that without much background information on the case, Geil testified, which was “typical.”

She said she received two guns – a .45-caliber Colt MK 4 Series 80 Lightweight Commander model, and a 9mm .380 Sig Sauer P-230. (The latter gun had been discussed earlier in the trial as having been registered to Chambers’s wife.)

Geil was asked to explain how semi-automatic handguns work (this is probably clearer than our notes would be) and what “caliber” means (the diameter of the projectile). For a moment, she used a prop to explain further – a “big giant plastic cartridge.” The cartridge holds the bullet; the gun’s hammer strikes the firing pin, which in turn ignites the gunpowder, she explained.

Handed the container in which Chambers’s gun was kept, she confirmed that its labels included one she had placed after examining it (most of the evidence-containing boxes and bags we’ve seen in court are covered with various labels and tape strips of various covers, for a crazy-quilt appearance).

Asked further about who would have handled it and how, Geil noted, “Unlike the TV shows, we don’t hand evidence to other people in the lab – it all goes back to the central vault” from which it is retrieved by whomever needs to examine it. And yes, she confirmed, she test-fired it.

After lunch, she was asked to take out the gun and display it. Wearing blue disposable gloves, she did so, the black pistol in her hand, pointed toward the ground. Likening its magazine’s workings to ‘a glorified Pez dispenser,” she spoke more about what happens after it’s fired – the bullet would travel 1,000 feet per second, and if there was nothing in its path, it wouldn’t fall to the ground for a mile and a half.

Elaborating on her test-firing of the gun, she talked about checking to be sure it was safe, and then firing it into a special water tank at the lab, which allows them to easily retrieve the bullet(s) they test fire. This gun was in “good working condition,” she said, with a “safety” – which meant it shouldn’t go off if dropped – and a four-pound trigger pull, neither “very light” nor “very heavy.” (“Hair triggger,” she said, would be a one- to one-and-a-half-pound pull.)

The position in which one or just a few casings were found was not conducive to “ejection-pattern analysis” such as that used in cases with many bullets fired – “officer-involved shootings,” for example, Geil said.

She listed the brand names found on the casings recovered at the shooting scene – Federal, Spear, Winchester – and said she did not consider it significant that different brands of ammunition were used. She explained how casings/bullets could be matched to a specific gun, with “unique markings” left when the case interacts with “machine surfaces.”

A bullet that she was asked to analyze was hollow-point, “filled with fibers,” which meant that it didn’t expand upon contact with “soft tissue” (or another target) as she said such bullets are intended to do. The fibers, it was explained later, would have come from Hood’s clothing, which was tested for gunpowder residue; Geil detailed how that kind of test would show whether the gun had been fired within a few feet of whomever or whatever its bullet(s) hit. “If gunpowder particles (are) present, you can test and possibly tell the muzzle-to-target distance,” but past four feet or so, the particles might drop off.

In this case, she was asked to test a white T-shirt, maroon polo-style shirt, tan zipup jacket. Her process, she testified, involves photographing the clothing, looking at all the “defects” (bullet holes), testing for copper, lead, presence of gunpowder particles. She said she had found “defects” on the tan jacket corresponding with the other two items, and that the autopsy report’s details corresponded to the “defects.” She said she found one gunpowder particle – “nitrates that, when it burns, turns into nitrite” – about the size of a grain of pepper. With that, and results of her “test-firing the weapon onto cotton panels at different distances to determine its dropoff distance,” she concluded “muzzle to target” was likely “greater than 4 to 4 1/2 feet.”

Outside the jury’s presence, before the afternoon break, the lawyers discussed the admissibility of the fact that some of the ammunition found had been altered. Prosecutor Nave argued that it would “show the presence of mind of the defendant handling the gun.” But if the witness subsequently testified that altering the ammunition could make the bullets more lethal, that could lead the jury to speculate he intended that, it was argued.

When the break was over, Nave finished her questioning by simply asking what constitutes a “hollow-point” bullet; Geil replied that “the nose of the bullet itself is actually a cavity.”

For the defense, McLane then briefly cross-examined Geil, mostly just re-confirming the “more than 4-to-4-1/2-feet” likely distance between muzzle and “target.”

In re-direct, Nave asked if wind would affect the bullet – yes, but how much, Geil didn’t really know.

And with that, she was off the stand, to which Detective Tim DeVore moved from his seat at the prosecution table, diagonally across what you might consider the courtroom’s stage, framed by Judge Theresa Doyle‘s bench, the jury box, the gallery, and a wall.

He said he’s in his 26th year with SPD, serving as a detective for 18 of those years, since 1996. Homicide Unit detectives don’t just investigate killings, he testified; they also investigate cases including “serious assaults,” officer-involved shootings, and kidnappings, among others.

In January 2012, at the time of the Morgan Junction shooting, he was partnered with Det. Jeff Mudd. He explained how the assignments worked – homicide detectives would be on call for certain periods of time referred to as either “standby” or “next up. Four detectives would usually be summoned to a scene; the standby detectives would be done with the case after their time at the scene, but the “next up” detectives would “keep that homicide until the case makes its way to trial.”

He and Det. Mudd got this case Monday morning, January 23rd – a day and a half later.

“Why weren’t you on the scene?”

Det. DeVore explained, “On rare occasions, where patrol (officers) respond to an incident with significant injury, if it appears the individual is going to survive but they’re not sure, they will at least dispatch the standby detectives to go to the scene; they won’t dispatch the next-up detectives until the person is confirmed deceased, or certain that’s going to be the case. In this case, the victim was not deceased the first night, and the homicide sergeant chose not to call us in.”

Homicide sergeants with that kind of responsibility also rotate, he said, separate from the particular sergeant who would be detectives’ supervisors for administrative matters such as scheduling. And he and Mudd had received a “warning” on Sunday that the victim “was in very bad condition,” so they should “prepare to be called in.”

Once they were assigned, they met up at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office to view Travis Hood’s autopsy. Homicide detectives typically sit in on the autopsies, he said: “It’s important for us to see the nature of the injuries and gain a lot of information about the case. … After the autopsy, we returned to my office at headquarters and started compiling information generated by patrol, Anti-Crime Team officers, other detectives, going through statements taken by witnesses … (and) at some point we had the opportunity to view the video-recorded interview with the defendant.”

They also talked by phone with Hood’s friend Jamie Vause, the closest-known witness, “and scheduled a time to talk with him.”

Then, the detectives decided to go to the scene. Why, since the evidence had long been collected? DeVore was asked. “It’s always good to know what the scene looks like, the distances between landmarks, look for any potential surveillance video from neighboring businesses, try to contact witnesses named in the police report …”

They each traveled one side of the street (California SW). No surveillance video. But they did talk to business people and also posted their contact information in the lobby of the landmark cylindrical apartment building Cal-Mor Circle across the street, asking for anyone who saw the shooting to get in touch with them.

“Why did you do it that way?” asked Nave.

“A few things – we weren’t there to know that night which lights were on, which curtains were open, who might be a witness … this seemed to be the most logical approach.”

Then they went to Vause’s home to talk with him.

“How did he act?”

“Very animated, cooperative, at times emotional.” Their half-hour conversation with him was recorded.

Next, he said, they went to the CSI vehicle-processing room, planning to meet with a CSI detective “to talk about goals.” Since they had seen Chambers’s video-recorded interview, they were aware of what he said happened at his car, “that he had been attacked at his vehicle, that Mr. Hood and Mr. Vause had tried to get into his vehicle.”

Looking at the passenger side of the car, DeVore testified, it “did have a haze of road film on what appeared to be a well-cared-for, waxed vehicle.”

“When you examined the passenger side, did what you saw or didn’t see inform your next steps on what to do?”

He said he had CSI Detective Kim Biggs (an earlier witness in the trial) “make an effort to search for prints.”

Shortly thereafter, a point of disagreement erupted between defense and prosecution, and the jury was sent out of the room so it could be discussed.

At issue, why and how DeVore made certain decisions in directing what would be examined from there. Prosecutor Nave said that since the defense’s case “(turns) on Detective DeVore somehow not doing what he should have done, he needs to be able to (explain his decisionmaking).” In particular, she said, he would need to explain why he didn’t think DNA evidence from the car would be important.

Defense attorney Ben Goldsmith protested that would be “highly prejudicial.”

Well, suggested the judge, “you can ask on cross-examination.”

Goldsmith said that would be pitting his “credibility against a homicide detective.”

The judge decided to think about it, and all agreed that was the point at which they would adjourn for the week, returning Monday morning. But first, Judge Doyle decided to have the jury come back in so she could give them the update that Det. DeVore is likely the last prosecution witness, so the defense case would likely start “early next week.” This, she declared, meant they were “right on track” with the estimate of a 6-or-so-week trial, once it reached the testimony stage.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:

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)

1 Comment

  1. Again, well done. Thanks!

    Comment by Alan — 12:10 am March 16, 2014 #

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