DNA Evidence Connects to 23 Year Old Murder

Overview:  An LA  police officer assumed she had committed the perfect crime, but alas, 23 years after she shot and killed the fiancé of her lover, staging the crime scene to look like a robbery gone wrong, DNA evidence collected at the Van Nuys crime scene was analyzed and led to Officer Stephanie Lazarus, who is now doing 27 years to life.  Read all about it in this weeks Law Review.

In December 2004, members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Cold Case Unit reopened a 23 year old unsolved murder case, asking the Coroner’s office to have a DNA analysis done on a bite mark tissue sample which had been in a freezer since 1986.

While the DNA analysis determined the bite mark on the murder victim was caused by a female, it did not find a match on the national database system. Several years later the investigation turned towards specific women who might have had been involved in the1986 homicide. LAPD officers must have had a suspicion, so they surreptitiously obtained a sample of one of their own police officer’s DNA by taking possession of a drinking cup and straw discarded by the officer, and through that sample they found a match on the bite mark saliva and tissue.

Police Officer Arrested

Stephanie Lazarus, a 25­‑year veteran of the LAPD was arrested and charged with first degree murder in the shooting death of Sheri Rasmussen. Broken fingernails collected at the crime scene also had a DNA match to Officer Lazarus.

When detectives questioned Officer Lazarus, she gave evasive and incomplete answers. Just like in the movies. Of course, this was 20­‑plus years after the homicide.

Evidence at the 1986 Van Nuys crime scene had turned up three 38‑caliber bullet casings manufactured by Federal. At the time, LAPD officers were required to use that very ammunition. Three bullets were found in the chest of Rasmussen. Stereo equipment at the crime scene had been stacked near the door but nothing was taken, leading detectives at the time to conclude that Rasmussen had been shot in the course of a burglary gone wrong. (Just as the perpetrator wanted.)

No one was charged and the case remained unsolved and dormant until reopened 23 years later with the analysis of the DNA bite mark tissue sample.

Love Triangle

As it turns out, Officer Lazarus was having an affair with Sheri Rasmussen’s fiancé who cut off the relationship, which sent Lazarus over the edge.

In hindsight, the evidence pointed to Officer Lazarus, but she was not a suspect at the time and apparently believed she had committed the perfect crime ‑‑ at least for 23 years.

Lazarus was convicted of first‑degree murder by a jury and sentenced to 27 years to life. She appealed.

Novel Defense

Officer Lazarus’ argument to the Court of Appeal was that the long, 23 year delay in filing criminal charges against her prejudiced her ability to conduct her defense — in violation of the state and federal constitutions. (This is the best part of this Court of Appeal decision, and must be the reason I am writing this column.)

Officer Lazarus argued that the evidence at the time of the crime pointed to the possibility that an LAPD officer was involved in the crime, but the officers “adopted a tunnel vision” approach, believing the murder had been committed by anonymous burglars.

In other words, she claimed there was strong evidence of her guilt which, if charges had been filed in 1986, she could have successfully defended, but 23 years later, memories were stale, witnesses had died, records were missing, and her constitutional rights to defend herself were prejudiced, so her conviction should be overturned.

That is one gutsy and outrageous defense.

There Is No Perfect Crime

The Court of Appeal judges ultimately upheld Officer Lazarus’ conviction, reciting law that the 23‑year delay must be “a delay of deliberate action” by the prosecution and LAPD “designed to gain a tactical advantage”. The Court found the investigators had not deliberately delayed charging Lazarus, they just didn’t have a case until the DNA evidence surfaced 23 years later.

Lesson learned: there is no perfect crime.

Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at porter@portersimon.com or www.portersimon.com.  

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The content contained and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of the author. This blog contains content and opinions concerning the law generally, and is not intended to constitute legal advice or to create any attorney‑client relationship with the reader. The reader should consult with an attorney about any specific legal issues prior to embarking on any course of action or inaction involving legal matters.