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Ex-LAPD detective found guilty of killing romantic rival in 1986

Stephanie Lazarus is emotionless as she is convicted of beating and shooting the wife of a man who had spurned her. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck issues extraordinary apology to the victim's family.

March 09, 2012|By Joel Rubin and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

In 2009, as historically low homicide rates freed detectives to look at unsolved cases, a homicide investigator reopened the Rasmussen case.

By then the department's crime lab had conducted DNA testing — which didn't exist at the time of the killing — on a saliva sample taken from the bite mark and concluded that it had come from a woman.

Realizing that this upended Mayer's theory of two male burglars, the detective began from scratch and quickly identified Lazarus as a suspect. Undercover officers spent weeks following Lazarus in an effort to collect a sample of her DNA surreptitiously.

They eventually snatched a cup she discarded in a garbage can and rushed it to the lab. Jurors heard from DNA experts who testified that the test results were unambiguous: It had been Lazarus' saliva in the bite mark.

Prosecutors also built a circumstantial case that Lazarus killed Rasmussen with a small revolver she owned.

Ballistics experts testified that the bullets collected from Rasmussen's body were the specific type issued to LAPD officers in 1986, and markings on the bullets were telltale signs of having been fired from a snub-nosed .38-caliber Smith and Wesson handgun like the one Lazarus owned.

Two weeks after the killing, Lazarus reported to Santa Monica police that someone had broken into her car and stolen the revolver.

Mark Overland, Lazarus' hired attorney, struggled to counter the prosecutors' case.

He mounted a defense that lasted only two days — a meager showing compared to the 51 witnesses the prosecution put on over three weeks — and tried to undermine the credibility of the saliva swab by raising questions about the way it had been handled and stored over the years.

Although the seal on the plastic tube that contained the swab was intact, Overland said a hole in the envelope in which the tube was stored pointed either to tampering or contamination.

Lazarus, who had remained in custody in lieu of $10-million bail since her arrest in 2009, did not take the stand in her own defense.

Overland, who said he plans to file an appeal arguing that Perry was wrong to restrict him from pursuing certain lines of argument in the trial, said he was perplexed by the speed with which the jury reached its decision.

"It showed," he said, "we never had a chance."

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