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Hair Evidence Becomes Focus in Cosby Slaying

June 25, 1998|STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With 20 strands of hair, a cap, a gun and a bullet fragment from the head of Ennis Cosby, the prosecution crossed a major hurdle Wednesday--tying 19-year-old Mikail Markhasev to the killing of the son of entertainer Bill Cosby.

But reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the Los Angeles Police Department's handling of the evidence came under attack, and Deputy Alternate Public Defender Henry Hall opened a mystery about a missing hair. He also hinted that the prosecution deliberately withheld the most important hair evidence from him and submitted it to destructive DNA analysis before he could conduct his own tests.

If Hall raises enough questions about the hair, it could seriously weaken the prosecution's efforts to use physical evidence to show that Markhasev killed Cosby in a failed robbery attempt Jan. 16, 1997, on a side road off the San Diego Freeway.

Physical evidence is especially important in this case. Deputy Dist. Atty. Anne Ingalls is relying heavily on testimony from witnesses whose criminal past and pending charges raise questions about their credibility. They are expected to say Markhasev admitted killing Cosby.

Hall is trying to show that one of those witnesses--Eli Zakaria, 24, who was with Markhasev on the night of the killing--is the probable murderer.

The hair came from a dark blue knit cap that was wrapped around a .38-caliber Taurus revolver that prosecutors say Markhasev, Zakaria and his girlfriend ditched in a wooded area in the San Fernando Valley shortly after Markhasev used it to kill Cosby.

Diana Paul, a Los Angeles Police Department criminalist, said Wednesday she test-fired the gun and compared the bullet with the bullet fragment that was removed from Cosby's head by the coroner. She first held up the fragment for the jury and then the pistol with its cylinder opened.

"The bullet was fired from this Taurus revolver," she said, looking directly at the jury.

Other witnesses Wednesday discussed the hair that came from the cap wrapped around the revolver.

Harry Klann, the lead criminalist in the case, said his analysis of a single strand that police say was extracted from the cap contained DNA that was virtually impossible for anyone other than Markhasev to have.

"It would exclude 99.9% of the population," he said.

Criminalist Susan Brockbank said that several hairs from the cap were similar to Markhasev's hair in color, distribution of pigment granules, condition of the root and other characteristics.

"All of the head hair from the cap were similar microscopically to the head hair sample [from Markhasev] and could have originated from him," she said.

But in a long, tedious cross-examination that started Tuesday, Hall tried to raise doubts that the hair matched Markhasev's.

Out of 20 strands of hair, only one was sufficient for DNA analysis, he said. That single strand seemed to surface late in the investigation and then was hidden from defense attorneys until the start of the trial, Hall said.

The Police Department's report on the hair comparison was not written until June 1, the day jury selection started for the trial.

When Brockbank examined the 20 hairs in March 1997 under a microscope, she said none of the hairs had the required "tissue material" around the root that made it suitable for DNA analysis. Even so, Brockbank packaged the hairs to Klann for a DNA analysis. Klann examined the six longest hairs in late April 1997.

"I could not obtain any DNA material from them," he said, noting that such analysis destroys the hair.

Klann returned the remaining 14 hairs to an evidence locker.

Early this year, Brockbank opened the package containing the hairs to examine them to see if they were similar to Markhasev's hair.

Brockbank found only 13 hairs, meaning one was missing, a mystery that was not resolved Wednesday.

As Brockbank looked at the hairs--this time with a more powerful microscope than the one she used earlier--she found a single 3-millimeter strand of hair with tissue material attached to the root, making it a strong candidate for DNA analysis.

She sent it back to Klann.

When Klann got it, the hair was only 2 millimeters long, one millimeter shorter than when Brockbank examined it. Hall questioned Klann about the discrepancy, but it was never resolved.

Klann concluded that the DNA from the hair matched that of Markhasev's.

Hall questioned Brockbank and Klann about why he wasn't informed about the single strand of hair before it was destroyed by the DNA analysis.

"You knew Mr. Markhasev was charged with murder and it was a high-profile case, didn't you?" he asked Brockbank. "Did you ever contact me about this?"

"No," Brockbank responded, "I've never done that with any defense attorney in a case."

When testimony resumes today, the defense will begin trying to shake Diana Paul's testimony linking the gun to Cosby.

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