By LINDA DEUTSCH, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Shocking death pictures of a murdered woman were shown to jurors in the trial of former police detective Stephanie Lazarus — huge close-up portraits of the battered face of Sherri Rasmussen, who died 26 years ago.
One eye was swollen shut; the other wide open. Rasmussen's mouth was agape, her hands held up as if in a defensive posture. Prosecutors suggested that this mayhem was inflicted by Lazarus in a fit of rage after her lover married this woman instead of her.
Another photo of Rasmussen ethereal in a wedding gown, holding a bouquet of flowers provides the motive prosecutors allege.
"Sherri Rasmussen was wearing the gown that Stephanie Lazarus believed was hers," Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby said Monday in his opening statement to jurors.
But a lawyer for the onetime top cop said she is being wrongly accused in a case so old that some of the witnesses are having trouble remembering it. And he said much of the DNA evidence has deteriorated over time.
Retired Los Angeles police officer Rodney W. Forrest testified about going to Rasmussen's town house when the killing was first reported. But after he gave details including a description of her distraught husband, defense attorney Mark Overland asked if Forrest had told prosecutors last year that he remembers nothing of the case.
"Yes," said Forrest who acknowledged that he asked to see his notes from a quarter century ago.
"Did you remember then?" asked Overland.
"I remembered what was on the report and a few other things," he said.
Presby told jurors it was understandable that memories have faded. Ronald Reagan was President and Bill Cosby was the biggest star on TV in 1986 when Rasmussen was found bludgeoned and shot to death. DNA analysis had not yet been discovered.
Lazarus, 51, sat impassively taking notes as lawyers outlined the cases against and for her. They portrayed her as either a heartbroken, jilted lover driven to kill her romantic rival or an innocent woman snared in a web of mishandled scientific evidence.
In the courtroom audience sat Rasmussen's relatives including parents and her sister, Teresa Lane, who testified about the loving relationship between Rasmussen and her new husband, John Ruetten.
"They were walking holding hands like a happy couple," she said of a visit the day before Rasmussen died.
Outside court, the Rasmussen family lawyer, John Taylor, said they would be there every day even though "It's tough" for them to view the evidence.
"It took 26 years to get here finally. The family is pleased to get the trial going," he said.
Both sides said the proof of the cold case, would be in the forensic evidence.
"A bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart. That's the evidence that will prove the defendant Stephanie Lazarus murdered Sherri Rasmussen," Presby declared in the crowded courtroom.
He said a bite on Rasmussen's arm contained saliva that was matched to Lazarus' DNA more than two decades after the killing.
Lazarus' lawyer, Overland, said the DNA material was corrupted over the decades, and a forensic dentist would testify that the bite mark does not match an impression taken of Lazarus' teeth.
Presby acknowledged the gun used in the killing wasn't found but said the bullets came from the same type of weapon that was sold to Lazarus at the Los Angeles Police Department gun shop when she became an officer.
Overland suggested police were correct when they initially suspected Rasmussen had been killed by burglars.
Presby told an age old story of love gone wrong. He said Lazarus was obsessed with her former boyfriend, John Ruetten, who did not return her feelings. When he told her that he was marrying another woman, he said she was driven to vengeance.
He said she broke into the townhouse that Ruetten shared with Rasmussen, his new wife, then bludgeoned and shot her to death after a confrontation that left blood on the walls.
Presby read jurors an excerpt of a letter Lazarus wrote to her mother a few months before the killing.
"I'm totally in love with John and the past year has really torn me up," it said. "I don't think I'll ever understand his decision."
Overland said the said the relationship between Lazarus and Ruetten was not one-sided. They were college friends who later became lovers, and their sexual relationship lasted about a year. She became close to his family and thought they had a future together.
But he chose Rasmussen and a short time before their wedding, Lazarus appealed to Ruetten to meet with her, Overland said. He came to her home and the meeting ended with them having sex, the lawyer said.
"He told Stephanie Lazarus he was moving on with his life," the attorney said.
The former detective has been in custody since 2009.