December 10th, 2008
unedited draft entry
#27 Steve Renteria (LA Co. Sheriff's Dept. DNA technical leader and expert; examined several items recovered at the scene for DNA; testimony completed)
Accredited Press inside the courtroom: None
It's all in the DNA
Absence of Evidence is not Evidence of Absence. Do any of you remember that from the first trial? It was a very long and grueling cross examination and redirect and cross and redirect and cross of DNA expert criminalist Steve Renteria today but all in all I think he stood up well under cross. Renteria eloquently said, "Every contact leaves a trace but not all trace [evidence] is detectable."
The points Weinberg tried to make today in his cross examination were that Spector's DNA was not found on the murder weapon and all the individuals working on the investigation from the lead detectives to the group of criminalists working on testing the evidence, even the prosecutors involved in the case, directed or specifically chose not to test the weapon for "handler" (aka touch) DNA. The problem with this argument is, it is a known scientific fact that "touch DNA" does not contain a significant amount of DNA compared to the amount contained within blood. To test for touch DNA, Renteria states criminalists specifically look for areas of the evidence that do not have blood on them; the gun had quite a bit of surface area with blood on it. Renteria testified that when there is a large amount of DNA from a blood source [on a piece of evidence] it can easily over power, cover, or drown out any touch DNA that might be there so that it is undetectable. Just because Spector's DNA is not detected on the weapon does not mean that you can make a conclusion that he did not fire or handle the weapon.
However, in the gallery, that's not the conclusion Rachelle reached at the end of the morning session. It was right after Weinberg was asking Renteria about the DNA evidence he found on the weapon, "other than that [single] Y type [allele]?" (Weinberg keeps pressing that this Y allele could have come from any male.) Renteria says, "It's a negative result. I can't tell you why it [the DNA] wasn't there."
Before the last few jurors had entered the jury room to start their lunch break, Rachelle, still sitting in the front row, put her arm up in the air (expecting I think, someone to come over and give her a high five) and with an absolutely gleeful expression on her face says, "Because he didn't fire it!" I heard her say it. I'm hoping the last jurors entering the jury room didn't hear her say it. (This was very similar behavior to the happy dance she did in the hallway during the first trial after Di Maio took the stand and testified for the defense.)
In the gallery today were and older balding gentleman and a much younger, in their 20's looking couple, all three personal friends of Weinberg's cheering on his cross examination with comments such as, 'He's so good! He's so good! That was a great question!' Before court started, this same group was sitting to my right in the second bench row, almost directly behind Mrs. Clarkson. Unfortunately, I don't think they were aware that they were sitting behind the victim's mother when the balding man was commenting to his companions about his perception of the DNA evidence, which in my opinion, was grossly simplistic and incorrect.
Sometime during the afternoon session, a Chinese food take out box was delivered from Weinberg's cheering squad to Spector at the defense table. At the afternoon break, Spector delivered the box to Rachelle who at first looked at it with a dazed expression on her face. She then turned to the group and waved and the balding gentleman waved back.
Also in the courtroom for the afternoon session was Spector's son, Louis and his companion Frieda. Louis has been blogging about his courtroom experiences when he attends the trial on his MySpace page, where you can also see some samplings of his artistic talents.
Spector was drinking from that small bottle again today, but this time I got a closer look. It appears to be a very small Arrowhead brand bottle filled with something that has a pinkish or tan looking hue to the liquid.
Here is a sampling of the cross examination and redirect of Steve Renteria from the afternoon session. For these beginning questions, Weinberg's tone in asking the question is one of incredulous disbelief.
DW: You did not test areas of the gun that did not have blood on them?
DW: Then, who asked you to search for blood [on the weapon] from another person?
SR: It's a common practice.
DW: Let me understand it. Are you telling us that you did not know and did not ask? (If Spector had a wound and was bleeding when he was arrested.)
SR: Not Mr. Spector's blood. Anyone's blood.
DW: So what would be the reason to test the weapon?
SR: To be thorough.
DW: To be thorough. So then why did you not test other areas of the gun?
SR: I wouldn't know if any other blood was on the gun unless I tested it.
Weinberg is asking rapid fire questions about why other areas of the gun were not tested for DNA.
DW: Isn't it to be fair, (as if the testing the lab did was not fair) to do handler DNA test for... to know who handled the gun?
SR: Handler DNA [testing] is usually done when there is no blood [present on a specific area].
More questions about procedures and why this was not done.
DW: No one asked you to determine "who" handled the gun?
This question is asked in a disbelief tone. Weinberg then obtains the gun from the bailiff, puts on a glove and presents the gun for Renteria. He has Renteria point to and identify areas on the gun where he collected samples and tested for DNA.
SR: When looking for handler DNA, [it's] very difficult because what you would need is an area that was totally free of blood.
DW: Did you look or test for DNA [on this or this area]?
SR: We don't test every single area of the gun. [...] And [we] stay away from different types of bodily fluid areas.
Weinberg tries to imply that this was improper or negligent police procedure by not testing for "handler" DNA. There are more questions about the Sheriff's lab procedures and then Weinberg asks, "That's the sum substance of your testimony today?" "Yes," Renteria replies. "Then I believe I'm done with the gun," Weinberg says. The gun is put back in it's evidence envelope.
Weinberg moves onto asking about fingerprints and fingerprint testing, and if Renteria knows when was the weapon sent out for fingerprint testing before or after he performed his tests. Renteria states that "only 25-50% of the time they only find handler's DNA." Renteria testifies that he doesn't have the knowledge of success rate of fingerprinting [the gun].
Weinberg goes back to the fact that the lab did not test the trigger for DNA. "Why was it not important to know if Phil Spector pulled the trigger? [...] No one has ever tested that gun in the non-bloody areas. [...] I'm talking about [this] portion of the gun."
Weinberg now makes some questions in an accusatory statement form. "Those tests [the ones that were performed] were consciously made by those in charge of this case!" He mentions everyone who might have had input into the decision process on the case, even the prior prosecutors!
DW: As a criminalist, wouldn't it be important to know if Mr. Spector's DNA was on the trigger?
SR: I don't have an opinion.
Then Weinberg presents this long, convoluted hypothetical for Renteria to consider. It's basically the defense theory of the case. Assume this. Assume that. "Is there anything that you found that is inconsistent with that scenario?"
SR: I'd say no I think the blood spatter on the jacket does not account....
DW: I'm talking to you about DNA results! You're not an expert in blood spatter.
SR: In your hypothetical, that could be correct.
DW: Some random male [could have] left an allele [the single Y] on the gun. [...] You don't know who? [...] You don't know when?
Weinberg now asks that it's possible that the single Y allele could have been there for weeks. He then moves onto the foreign DNA on the bullet. "We don't know who handled the gun [yet] we do know that Detective Katz did." Weinberg puts up a photograph of Detective Katz handling the gun. In the photo, Detective Katz is wearing gloves on both hands, but the photo is washed out in the area of one hand, so the glove is not as easy to see.
DW: He has a glove on his hand, correct?
SR: No. Detective Katz has two gloves on.
Weinberg smiles when Renteria points out the trap he didn't fall into.
DW: Now you have to touch gloves to put them on, correct?
SR: Well, the normal way is to touch the cuffs, and put your fingers in.
Weinberg shifts now to the sexual assault kit and what was collected from Ms. Clarkson's body.
SR: There is an indication that it [the sample taken from Ms. Clarkson's left nipple area] come through amylase [which could indicate saliva]. [...] It's an indication; I can't say that it's confirmed.
(During direct, Renteria states that the [mixed] sample was "weak" for amylase presence. Amylase is present in semen, breast milk, perspiration and saliva. If the source of amylase is saliva, it's usually tests strong in the sample. The value attached to this sample in Renteria's opinion is not that strong; 1 in 14.8 billion. On the surface, you might think that's a big number, but it's not. Compared to the DNA mixed samples from the brandy sniffers. One sample tested out at 1 in 43 quadrillion. That's a one with 50 zeros after it.)
Weinberg then goes on a ramble that it should be reasonable to conclude that it was "somebody in the US..." Weinberg them goes onto the DNA sample taken from Spector's scrotum that had a very weak allele for Lana Clarkson and an unknown allele. The value attached to that sample is 1 in 94 thousand, and not enough to adequately test.
DW: You can't say that Lana Clarkson's DNA is on the scrotum, but every time I mention the gun you bring up the "Y" allele!
The Y marker on the gun had a "threshold" of 75, the very bottom of the minimum standards for the LA County Sheriff's lab. Weinberg goes on and on that some labs require a higher standard to record a finding such as 100 or 150. (I believe this is the number of times the DNA is repeated but I could be totally wrong about that.) Renteria counters that yes, and some labs standards are at 50.
DW: Even though that's [75 number] is on the bottom of the threshold, you say Mr. Spector can't be eliminated?
SR: I usually say Mr. Spector or any male.
There are questions about the fingernail scrapings and whether or not this is a standard test. Soon after Truc Do asks to approach and the afternoon recess is taken early at 2:30 pm. Looking over at Rachelle she has what I can only describe as an impish smile on her face during the last few questions of cross. I saw her rocking her body back and forth; it appeared as if she was excited. Maybe she thought that Weinberg was making good points. Spector presents the Chinese food container to Rachelle.
You have to understand that Weinberg is "testifying" through the witness. As someone explained this method of cross examination to me, it's like this. If you don't have facts you argue law. If you don't have the law you argue facts.
During the break the jury room is quite boisterous. I observe AJ speak to one of the DA's clerks to "let Jim go." It looks like Renteria is going to take the rest of the day and they will not get to their next witness, James Carroll until tomorrow morning. At the prosecution table, I see AJ check his phone.
When the break is over, Weinberg is asking about the decision to fingerprint the gun again and if Renteria knew when the gun was sent to the fingerprint division; the fifth of June. "I don't know when it was sent," Renteria responds. The luminol tests Renteria performed are discussed. There was no evidence of blood in the sink or the toilet with luminol.
DW: So, somebody would have to know to flush several times to get rid of all evidence? [...] Of course, you don't know if that occurred do you?
SR: No, I don't.
DW: One of the things that you were looking for was blood spatter.
SR: I was looking for any blood.
DW: Luminol isn't the best way to look for spatter?
SR: No. I was looking for any blood. [...] I believe that I would have found spatter if it was present.
Renteria testifies that the higher the [amount] of energy, the smaller the spatter [droplets].
DW: [That size spatter is] small, it dries that much more quickly; And it gets smaller; it shrinks?
SR: It dries to a surface. I don't think it changes in size.
DW: Isn't it highly likely that all that traffic [throughout the house/foyer area] would have pushed the particles into the carpet?
SR: Yes, it would have.
DW: It would have made it harder to pick up?
SR: Not with the luminol. I believe I could pick it up.
Weinberg goes on to cross Renteria on the number of man hours he things he spent on this case. He worked three to four months total, if you include the case prep. He was never told they [criminalists] could stop or cut back. The department had adequate assistance to help him with his job and unlimited resources to draw on.
And that's it for the first pass of cross examination. Truc gets up to redirect her witness.
Renteria explains that the investigation at a crime scene is a structured event. Certain things happen before others. There is a tried and true pattern they follow at a crime scene. In his 25 years with the Sheriff's Office, he estimates that he's processed approximately 175 scenes before he arrived at 1700 Grandview Drive. A perimeter is set up. Detectives set up markers of evidence to be photographed. Then he was let in to do his work. The coroner's personnel are not called until the very end of a crime scene investigation. Truc puts up a photo on the ELMO. This explains the many photos that Weinberg put up of the scene with several people working around Lana Clarkson's body. The two people in coroner's jackets are clearly visible in the photos.
TD: Did you see anything at the crime scene that calls into question the integrity of the evidence?
TD: If you did would you tell this jury?
TD: If you saw something at the scene you would speak up?
TD: [Regarding the luminol] You believe it would actually secure the evidence, not lose it? (The walking over the thick pile carpet and pushing any potential blood spatter down into the carpet.)
TD: It would drive it deeper into the carpet?
Renteria walked those same areas that he tested for luminol. "My opinion is, there was no blood on the carpet in those areas in front of Ms. Clarkson," he testifies. Truc has him clarify that the swabs Jaime Lintemoot took from Lana Clarkson's wrists at the scene, he relied on the other criminalists to adequately document what they collected, (Earlier, Weinberg misidentified the swabs as coming from Ms. Clarkson's "arm.") and based what was written on the sample. "Based on what Lintemoot collected, the only blood stains that I noted were collected from Ms. Clarkson's wrist areas." "Was there room for Lintemoot to write the word "hands" on the label if she wanted?" Truc asks. "Yes," Renteria testifies.
Truc then puts up a series of photos, one after the other. The first is the photo of the gun with the blood on it. Then there's a photo of the doorknob, and then the latch bolt. "There's more blood on the gun than on the door knob; less blood on the latch bolt than on the gun," Renteria testifies. Then many more images in a row, all the blood stains on the jacket that he collected for DNA testing. Each and every time that stain is compared to the bloody gun. "Is that [stain] less or more than the blood on the gun?" Truc asks. Then Truc says, "Explain to us [the implications of] having a substantial amount of blood on the gun [and if you could find handler DNA]."
SR: I believe that blood on the gun would have masked any "touch DNA" (also known as handler DNA).
TD: Can you tell the jury if you can place when DNA was placed on the gun? [...] Could any testing you do ever [answer that]?
SR: The absence of evidence is not evidence.
Renteria is basically saying that even though Spector's DNA was not found on the gun, that doesn't mean you can make the conclusion he didn't fire the weapon. You can't make that leap. Truc asks him about cases where he "knows" the suspect touched the weapon but they don't find the suspect's DNA.
SR: Every contact heaves a trace, but not all trace [evidence] is detectable.
Spector's fan enters and sits in the third row next to Louis and Frieda. Pat Kelly from the PIO leaves. Then Truc gives Renteria her "own" hypothetical about what the DNA evidence is consistent with. She outlines the testimony of the prosecution's case so far in her hypothetical and Renteria agrees that this hypothetical is consistent with his DNA results.
Recross! Weinberg goes over and over again, the testing of the weapon and the lack of testing on certain parts of it for "touch" or known as "handler" DNA. Renteria states that "Even if you know somebody touched the end [gun handle] it doesn't mean that we will find DNA."
DW: But if you're looking for who handled the gun that night, you don't have that datum because nobody checked.
DW: If you had checked, then we might know who handled the gun. [...] Where's the copious amounts of blood?
A photo is put up of a side view, crime lab photo of the gun and its heavily over lit. It's not a good photo. Weinberg again and again will put up this photo as evidence that there "wasn't" much blood on the gun. He points out areas of the grip and asks several times, where is the blood.
SR: This picture doesn't depict that.
DW: There were substantial areas of that gun that had areas with no blood?
SR: I can't say there was no blood. No visible blood.
Weinberg then moves onto the trigger area of the gun not being tested and after that, the bloody rag.
SR: I believe the entie rag had blood. I don't believe there were any areas that didn't have blood.
Weinberg then throws out a new theory that Spector didn't touch the banister with his hand. He could have "brushed by" the railing with the rag. He didn't necessarily touch the railing. The touch contact on items can be a fleeting contact.
SR: No, I don't agree that there "should have been" DNA in the blood on the gun. [...] In the areas that I tested, yes.
Truc points out that the rag and the banister belong to the owner of the house. It's his rag.
Weinberg asks, even though the hypothetical about the handrail, "You don't know when he last touched it?"
SR: What I'm saying is that the DNA could have been there but the blood DNA was so great it could have covered [up] the touch DNA.
Weinberg now shows the washed out evidence photo of the gun again. Renteria states again that the photo doesn't properly show the blood he observed on the gun.
Redirect! Truc puts up more evidence photos taken at the lab and has Renteria confirm on the photos the large amounts of blood he observed.
DW: You could have chosen to swab any portion of the gun?
DW: Even the ones with less visible blood?
DW: But you didn't?
No more redirect! Renteria is finally off the stand. We return tomorrow at 9:30 am.
I would like to give a special shout out to avid T&T reader Barry Bradford, who was instrumental in reopening the Mississippi Burning case. Congratulations Barry, on what you and your students were able to accomplish.