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Poisoning Suspect Changes Lawyers

Courts: Judge approves a public defender after Kristin Rossum's father says the family cannot afford an attorney. Bail is denied.

July 03, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — A former county toxicologist who is accused of poisoning her husband was granted a public defender Monday after her father, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, told the judge that the family cannot afford a private attorney.

Superior Court Judge David Szumowski granted the request for a public defender but rejected a plea from her father that Kristin Rossum, 24, be allowed bail while awaiting trial on a charge of murdering her husband.

Ralph Rossum said his daughter could easily have fled during the eight-month investigation that led to her arrest a week ago. The family would be willing to put up bail, he said.

"Mexico is very close," Rossum said. "She could have left at any time. She would not jeopardize our love and our financial future."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Goldstein, the lead prosector, said Rossum is not eligible for bail because the charge against her carries a possible death penalty.

Red-eyed and weeping during her father's comments, Rossum pleaded not guilty in the Nov. 6 death of Gregory DeVillers, 26. Szumowski set a preliminary hearing for July 16 but said the hearing will probably be delayed to give defense attorneys more time to prepare.

Authorities say Rossum killed her husband because he threatened to tell county Medical Examiner Dr. Brian Blackbourne that she was using methamphetamines, stealing the drugs from her job at the medical examiner's office, and having an affair with her supervisor, head toxicologist Michael Robertson.

Police say that Robertson, who has returned to his native Australia, remains a suspect in the case.

Kristin Rossum had initially retained Michael Pancer, one of the city's leading criminal defense attorneys. Pancer's clients have included then-Mayor Roger Hedgecock during the first of his two corruption trials.

Rossum's father, a government professor and director of the Rose Institute think tank, said he has confidence in the public defender's office. Gretchen von Helms, Pancer's partner, told reporters it costs a minimum of $200,000 to mount a defense in a death penalty case, with the cost increasing if the case goes to trial.

"They want to save their resources for bail," Von Helms said. "They want to have their little girl get out."

Rossum is accused of killing her husband by giving him an overdose of the powerful painkiller fentanyl that was stolen from the medical examiner's storeroom. His body was found surrounded by rose petals, which made police suspicious of Rossum's assertion that he had committed suicide out of despondency over her affair.

In an interview last week, Rossum said his daughter called him just minutes after finding her husband's lifeless body in their off-campus apartment owned by UC San Diego.

"I know from the abject terror when she called that night to tell us that Greg had stopped breathing, I know that she is innocent," Rossum said.

He said the couple had discussed separating in the days before DeVillers' death. "We refuse to believe that [the death] was anything but an accident," he said.

Goldstein said experts from Los Angeles, Nevada, Utah and San Diego were used to check the blood samples taken from DeVillers' body to determine the cause of death.

"We left no stone unturned and had outside agencies test everything we tested with the same results," he said. "The evidence in this case is immaculate."

Goldstein is one of the district attorney's top prosecutors and has won convictions in a string of high-profile and scientifically complex murder cases, including a "shaken baby" death at a day-care facility and the scalding death of a toddler.

The district attorney's office has filed a special circumstances allegation--murder by poison--which could mean either the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

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Times staff writer Tipton Blish and correspondent Paul Levikow contributed to this story.

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