Ex-Cop’s Cold-Case Murder Conviction Stands

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – The 24 years it took solve a former LAPD officer’s murder of her lover’s wife did not violate the officer’s due-process rights, a state appeals court ruled on Monday.
     A jury convicted Stephanie Lazarus, a 25-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, of murdering the wife of her former lover in 1986.
     Cold-case investigators solved the crime in 2009 when DNA from a bite mark on victim Sheri Rasmussen’s arm was finally matched to Lazarus.
     Although Lazarus staged the murder scene to look like a botched burglary, investigators determined at the time the bullets used to kill Rasmussen were the type used by LAPD officers and discharged from a gun similar to one Lazarus had reported stolen two weeks after the crime.
     In the early days of the investigations, detectives also had reason to link Lazarus to the crime – a point she used to attack the 24-year delay in finally charging her with Rasmussen’s murder both ahead of the trial and on appeal.
     Lazarus argued at trial that within days of the murder, her former lover told investigators that he and Lazarus had been in a relationship. She also noted that Rasmussen’s father had told detectives that Lazarus had threatened Rasmussen in the months before the murder, and that Rasmussen’s parents had repeatedly advised investigators to investigate Lazarus for more than a decade.
     The trial court agreed that the passage of time had fogged memories and resulted in discarded evidence that “minimally prejudiced” Lazarus, and that investigators had possibly been negligent in not pursuing Lazarus as a suspect from the beginning.
     But the court also held that the delay in solving the crime and charging Lazarus was not done to give prosecutors a tactical advantage, but was instead necessary to develop the DNA evidence that was eventually matched to Lazarus.
     In a 78-page ruling, a panel of the Second Appellate District agreed.
     “Appellant does not suggest the prosecution had sufficient evidence to warrant charging her before the DNA match in 2009, but contends that ‘DNA technology available since the 1980s could readily have been used to evaluate appellant as a suspect,'” Judge Nora Manella wrote for the three-judge panel.
     “It is clear from the record below that testing tissue samples to obtain a DNA profile is a difficult and time-consuming process,” Manella continued. “It is equally clear that there were many cold cases potentially resolvable through DNA analysis in the pipeline. Appellant has not demonstrated that law enforcement was negligent in failing to test the evidence in this case earlier.”
     As for witness clarity and evidence lost over the years, the panel found only “marginal significance” to Lazarus’ claims that her due-process rights had been violated by the 24-year delay.
     “As the trial court observed, the passage of time was more likely prejudicial to the prosecution than the defense,” Manella wrote.
     The panel also waved off Lazarus’ claims that the trial court should have dumped evidence gleaned from two search warrants – journals, computer hard drives, photos – obtained after investigators matched her DNA to the bite mark on Rasmussen’s arm, because the information used to obtain the search warrants was “stale.”
     “Here, the affidavit presented strong evidence of appellant’s guilt and she does not argue otherwise,” Manella wrote. “The affidavit also presented evidence of appellant’s apparent motive: her romantic obsession with the victim’s husband. Given the evidence that her obsession was powerful enough to lead her to commit murder, it was probable that she would have continued to retain items evidencing her relationship with the husband and her feelings toward the husband and Rasmussen, even after all the years that had passed.”
     Furthermore, the officer made his requests for the warrants out of a good-faith belief that he had probable cause to investigate Lazarus, the panel found.
     The panel also agreed with the trial court’s decision to disallow Lazarus’ lawyers from presenting evidence of a home-invasion burglary near Rasmussen’s condo weeks after the murder as a third-party culpability defense.
     “The dissimilarities between the April 1986 burglary and the assault on Rasmussen are striking, and the trial court was well within its discretion in concluding appellant had failed to raise a reasonable inference that the April burglary was in any way connected to Rasmussen’s murder,” Manella wrote for the panel, which concluded by noting that Lazarus has never challenged the key issues of the case.
     “Certain facts were largely uncontradicted at trial and were demonstrated through the introduction of evidence whose admission is not challenged on appeal. Critical among them were: (a) that appellant, deeply in love with the husband, was devastated by his decision to marry Rasmussen; (b) that appellant directed her anger not at the husband, but at Rasmussen, confronting her at her place of work; and (c) that appellant’s DNA appeared in the saliva of the bite mark inflicted on Rasmussen’s forearm near the time of her murder,” Manella wrote. “These facts alone raise the nearly inescapable inference that appellant confronted, assaulted and murdered Rasmussen.”
     Lazarus is currently serving 27 years to life at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.
     Rasmussen’s parents unsuccessfully sued the city of Los Angeles, the LAPD and Lazarus in 2010 and again in 2011. Both a trial court and a subsequent appellate panel found the statute of limitations on their claims ran out in 2000, two years after they stopped communicating with the LAPD about the investigation into their daughter’s murder.

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