LOS ANGELES (CBS) — A former Los Angeles police detective convicted of first-degree murder was sentenced Friday to 27 years to life in
state prison for gunning down her ex-boyfriend’s wife inside a Van Nuys condominium in a jealous rage more than 26 years ago.
Prosecutors said Stephanie Lazarus — who was linked to the case based on DNA from a bite mark on the victim’s arm — killed the woman in a jealous rage.
Los Angeles Times reporter Andrew Blankstein told KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO there was a wide range of emotions in court.
“Obviously it was gut-wrenching and emotional with family members giving victim impact statements, but there really wasn’t a lot of emotion showed, if any, on the part of the defendant,” said Blankstein.
Jurors deliberated about eight hours before convicting the former LAPD art-theft investigator on March 8 of the slaying of 29-year-old Sherri Rasmussen, a Glendale Adventist Medical Center nursing supervisor who was shot three times on Feb. 24, 1986, in the Balboa Boulevard condominium she shared with her husband, John Ruetten, Lazarus’ one-time love interest.
Lazarus retired from the Los Angeles Police Department after she was arrested by LAPD Robbery-Homicide Division detectives at the department’s downtown headquarters in June 2009, largely as a result of DNA evidence taken from a bite mark on Rasmussen’s left arm. She has remained jailed since then.
Deputy District Attorney Paul Nunez told jurors during the trial that the statistical probability of the DNA from the bite mark belonging to someone other than Lazarus was one in 1.7 sextillion.
During closing arguments, Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby told jurors that “overwhelming evidence,” including DNA, linked Lazarus to the killing, but defense attorney Mark Overland countered that the evidence pointed to her innocence.
Presby said there were only two explanations for Lazarus’ DNA being found in the bite mark: she either “bit Sherri when she was attacking her” or someone planted the evidence to try to frame the veteran police detective.
Overland countered that the DNA evidence “cannot be trusted or relied upon because its integrity has been compromised,” noting that there was a tear in the envelope containing the tube with the DNA sample from the bite mark when it was retrieved for testing.
“I am very disappointed,” Lazarus’ attorney said after the verdict. “I think the speed of the verdict showed that we never had a chance in this case. It’s difficult for me to understand how they could have gone through all the evidence in the time that they did. It’s difficult for me to understand how they could have answered all the questions that raised, in my mind, reasonable doubt.”
District Attorney Steve Cooley told reporters after the verdict the case “illustrates the importance of DNA as an investigative tool in unsolved cases.”
“Had it not been for DNA discovered on a swab taken from a bite mark on the victim, this case might never have been solved,” Cooley said, noting that authorities did not have the DNA capabilities 25 years ago that they do now.
Rasmussen’s father, Nels, had insisted shortly after the killing that police investigate Lazarus — who had been an officer for two years at the time of the woman’s death — but the case went cold until 2004, when the coroner was asked to retest the bite mark DNA.
Lazarus had been in a sexual relationship with Ruetten, whom she met in college, but he testified during the trial that he never considered her his girlfriend and continued to date other women while he was seeing her.
After the verdict, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck called the case “a tragedy on every level” and apologized for how long it
took to “solve this case and bring a measure of justice to this tragedy.”
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