(CN) – The 9th Circuit gave a former San Diego County toxicologist serving life in prison for fatally poisoning her husband in 2000 another shot at arguing that her conviction should be thrown out due to ineffective counsel.
Kristin Rossum’s husband, Gregory de Villers, was found dead from an overdose of the powerful opiate fentanyl. Although his death was initially ruled a suicide, Rossum, a meth-addicted county toxicologist, stood trial for his murder.
Just before his death, de Villers learned that Rossum had been having an affair with her boss and that she had relapsed back into meth use.
The murder made national headlines after de Villers’ body was found covered in rose petals in “American Beauty” fashion.
In her petition for habeas relief, which the district court denied, Rossum argued that her attorney had framed the death as a suicide without testing the samples for possible contamination.
A three-judge panel agreed that Rossum’s lawyer failed to do an elementary investigation into lab samples and had used an “implausible” suicide overdose defense.
“The potential for contamination of the samples was not remote,” Judge Nancy Gertner wrote, noting that the samples had been stored in an unsecured refrigerator at the medical examiner’s office, where both Rossum and her lover worked, for 36 hours.
“In addition to opportunity, there was motive to contaminate in the swirl of personal relationships” among the employees, Gertner said.
“The fentanyl levels in de Villers’s autopsy samples were extraordinarily, even unnaturally, high,” the judge added. “While these elevated concentration levels suggested that death was immediate, they were at odds with medical evidence which indicated that de Villers lingered in a state of unconsciousness for several hours before he died.”
The Pasadena-based panel noted that two other drugs, aside from fentanyl, had been found in de Villers’ samples.
“If, as Rossum alleges, de Villers’s specimens were contaminated and her attorneys failed to investigate that possibility, she would in all probability be entitled to habeas relief on her claim of ineffective assistance of counsel,” the panel ruled.
It reversed and remanded for an evidentiary hearing.