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Murder prelim eyes evidence handling

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From page A1 | February 15, 2013 | Leave Comment

The preliminary hearing for the man accused of murdering a South Lake Tahoe gas station attendant in 1980 mostly focused on DNA and handling evidence Wednesday.

Andrew Sanford, 50, looked on as deputy district attorney Trish Kelliher called Chris Hopkins to the stand. On Aug. 30, 2007, the retired FBI special agent took custody of items related to the alleged murder, particularly the duct tape used to bind Richard Swanson, 16, at the time he was suffocated to death. The items were then sent to the FBI’s forensics lab in Quantico, Va. The items were returned to the South Lake Tahoe Police Department on Nov. 5, 2009.

Under questioning from defense attorney Erik Schlueter, Hopkins said he received three sections of duct tape, five shirts, a jacket, jumper cables and a Master Lock padlock. Schlueter, also asked questions related to contamination of the evidence, such as maintenance staff disturbing the items. However, the cleaning crew only works during the day when the agents are on duty and the building is highly secure, Hopkins said.

Next to the stand was Shawn Kacer, assistant lab director at the Department of Justice Crime Lab in Sacramento, formerly a senior criminalist. Kacer noted the lab is accredited and follows national standards, ensuring quality control. The samples are tape-sealed, secure vaults are used for storage, the samples are followed using electronic chain of custody and only one sample is used at a time per person.

Kacer received the items for the case on Dec. 22, 2009. He personally received the items — among them were duct tape, towels, a shirt, a shoe, CDs containing photographs and a sample of blood from Swanson for reference — from Chuck Owens of the SLTPD, he said.

A stain in the shirt proved to be Swanson’s blood. He moved on to several samples of the duct tape, swabbing multiple areas, both sticky side and gray side on some pieces. He noted that many people use their teeth to cut a piece of duct tape off, meaning there could be DNA still on the tape.

Blood stains largely proved to be from Swanson, but some of the pieces of tape had mixed DNA results, meaning the DNA had to come from another person besides Swanson. One piece in particular had DNA markers at 11 of the 15 locations used in matching DNA — enough to upload not only to the state registry of convicted criminals, but the nationwide database — that did not come from the victim.

The database came back with a hit on Jan. 9, 2011, having been uploaded the previous month. The major contributor of the DNA of the sample came back as Swanson, not unexpected. Before the name was released, Kacer said, another lab would independently verify the results. The name was released. “Andrew Evan Sanford,” Kacer said. After having an oral swab containing Sanford’s DNA delivered, the expert witness said he “couldn’t exclude (Sanford) as a minor” contributor to the DNA mixture, meaning that, given the similarity of the sample and Sanford’s DNA on record, he could not be eliminated as not having contributed.

Other samples, with fewer locations of testable DNA found, came up with the same results. “Richard Swanson and Andrew Sanford,” Kacer said multiple times.

Kacer noted that there were a few contaminations of the samples — he found both his DNA and the DNA of Jim Jeffery, who examined the evidence in 1980.

The case was reviewed twice internally, as per protocol, with the results not changing, Kacer said.

Schlueter introduced attorney Robert Blasier, who would be taking over the cross-examination of Kacer. Blasier focused on how many samples were tested, which strips, why some strips were not used — they did not have enough DNA locations to make a match—- and how many other samples, not used in matching, had more DNA locations showing more than two contributors.

Kacer said that multiple pieces had “at least three contributors” and one appeared to have at least four.

Given the testing sample, it was found that there was a 1 in 240 million chance to match the DNA sample of Sanford to someone of African American descent, 1 in 100 million of Caucasian and one in 67 million of Hispanic descent with the same DNA locations.

Blasier also argued with Kacer on methods and possible controversy within the forensics community on how the lab tested to the point where Kelliher made multiple objections, mostly sustained. Blasier was also attempting to prove that the samples could be contaminated, with Kacer noting that the fingerprint analysis done on one of the samples could indeed cause contamination.

The final witness of the day was Jefferey, a DOJ criminalist, who mostly worked with blood samples and trace evidence. However, the focus of the questioning of the attorneys was on his handling of the duct tape nearly 33 years ago.

He said he worked on a bench top covered with butcher paper, starting off the examination with his bare hands — possibly where the contamination later found by Kacer came from. Much of the questioning dealt with his examining the ends of the tape, trying to match up where each piece connected to the other.

Being that he was a blood analyst, he also received a “brown medicine jar” of Swanson’s blood, somewhat unusual in that it was not a vacutainer vial normally used to easily collect blood. He tested the blood for blood typing, but did not perform a tox screen.

When asked again if he wore any type of glove, he said he “may or may not have worn” playtex gloves, as it wasn’t protocol then. It was protocol, however, to “never open more than one item at a time.”

He, like Kacer, noted the fingerprint dust on one of the pieces of tape.

Finally, Jeffrey noted that he had a main goal in examining the duct tape. “My interest was to find a similar section to item 25 (the roll of duct tape).”

The preliminary hearing ended for the day, with Kelliher noting she would have more witnesses the next morning, but would be finished with the prosecution side of the preliminary hearing by the end of that day.

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