Tuesday, July 14, 2015
C.A. Upholds Murder Conviction of Former LAPD Detective
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday affirmed the first degree murder conviction of a former Los Angeles Police Department detective in the cold-case killing of her ex-boyfriend’s wife.
Stephanie Lazarus convicted of murdering Sherri Rasmussen. The nurse was killed by three gunshots in the Van Nuys condominium she shared with husband John Ruetten, sometime after her husband left for work on the morning of Feb. 24, 1986.
The bullets used to kill Rasmussen were of the type then used by LAPD officers, and were discharged from a gun similar to one owned by Lazarus, which she declared stolen two weeks after the shooting.
Lazarus was charged in 2009, following a DNA match to a bite mark on the body, and was convicted in March 2012. She is serving a sentence of 27 years to life in prison.
The case has been extensively reported on, as police and prosecutors eventually concluded that Lazarus killed Rasmussen out of jealousy. Lazarus was upset that Ruetten had ended their relationship, and had tried to get him to call off his engagement to Rasmussen, according to his testimony at the trial.
There was also evidence that Lazarus had stalked and confronted Rasmussen at her workplace.
Rasmussen’s parents accused the LAPD of dragging its heels in investigating the murder in order to conceal the fact that one of their own members was involved, and to prevent them from suing. They filed a lawsuit against the department in 2010, while Lazarus was awaiting trial, but the case was dismissed as time-barred, a ruling the Court of Appeal affirmed in November 2012.
In yesterday’s decision, the panel rejected the defense contention that the long delay in prosecuting the case deprived Lazarus of due process of law.
The defense cited claims by Rasmussen’s parents that they had told the LAPD the day after the murder that they suspected their son-in-law’s ex-girlfriend was the killer, although they did not know her name at the time, and had told them about the confrontation at the hospital. The defense also noted that Ruetten had given Lazarus’s name to police not long after the murder and told them she was an LAPD officer.
But Justice Nora Manella, writing for Div. Four, said there were legitimate reasons for the delay.
Manella said the trial judge, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Perry, did err in holding that the defense had to prove that police and prosecutors willfully delayed bringing the case. While that is the federal standard, the former U.S. attorney and U.S. district judge explained, California cases hold that negligent delay may violate due process if the defendant suffers extreme prejudice as a result.
The Truth-in-Evidence clause added to the state Constitution by 1982’s Proposition 9 does not require reliance on the federal standard, Manella said, because the clause applies only to questions regarding the admissibility of evidence, not the interpretation of the state’s due process clause.
But even if law enforcement was negligent in not diligently pursuing earlier leads and in focusing on the theory that the victim was killed by burglars, Manella said, Perry correctly ruled there were valid reasons for delay that outweighed any prejudice, in particular the fact that the DNA technology that finally led to Lazarus being charged didn’t exist in 1986.
The justice rejected the argument that the delay was unreasonable because the technology was available long before it linked Lazarus to the crime.
“It is clear from the record below that testing tissue samples to obtain a DNA profile is a difficult and time-consuming process,” Manella wrote. “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 the defense claim of prejudice, the justice said it was “speculative in the extreme” to argue that if Lazarus had been charged sooner, she might have been able to present 911 and police communications recordings to show that there were other suspects.
Attorneys on appeal were Donald R. Tickle, by appointment, for the defendant and Linda C. Johnson and Michael Katz for the prosecution.
The case is People v. Lazarus, 15 S.O.S. 3587.
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