A state appeals court panel on Monday upheld the conviction of a former Los Angeles police detective sentenced to 27 years in prison for gunning down her ex-boyfriend’s wife in a jealous rage in 1986.
A three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected arguments by attorneys for Stephanie Ilene Lazarus that her right to due process had been denied by a more than two-decade-long delay in bringing charges.
The panel also denied claims that the lower court should have quashed search warrants for Lazarus’ home and computers and should not have admitted a taped pre-arrest interview with detectives at her trial.
Lazarus, an art theft investigator and 25-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, was convicted in 2012 of first-degree murder in shooting death of Sherri Rasmussen, the bride of Lazarus’ former lover, John Ruetten.
The then-25-year-old detective shot the 29-year-old victim in the Balboa Boulevard condominium she shared with her husband in Van Nuys. The couple had wed three months earlier.
Prosecutors, in a “statement of views,” said Lazarus was in love with Ruetten and “emotionally devastated” when she learned of his engagement to Rasmussen in 1985.
“Lazarus utilized her training as a police officer to enter Sherri Rasmussen’s home, physically attack Rasmussen and beat her until Rasmussen lay helpless on the floor,” the prosecutors wrote. “After beating Sherri Rasmussen, Lazarus decided to execute her.”
Rasmussen, a nurse, died of three gunshot wounds to the chest. Investigators originally thought she had been the victim of a robbery.
The cold case murder was solved more than two decades after the Feb. 24, 1986, shooting when DNA from a bite mark on Rasmussen’s arm was matched to Lazarus.
Deputy District Attorney Paul Nunez told jurors at trial that the statistical probability of the bite mark DNA belonging to someone other then Lazarus was one in 1.7 sextillion.
The appeals panel found the facts convincing.
“She confessed to her roommate, wrote in her journal and confided in a letter to Ruetten’s mother her deep-seated unhappiness and distress over Ruetten’s marriage to Rasmussen,” Justice Nora M. Manella wrote, adding that the circumstantial evidence was very strong and together with DNA, created a “nearly inescapable inference that appellant confronted, assaulted and murdered Rasmussen.”
“Appellant was off work the day of the killing, she had no alibi, the gun used to commit the murder was consistent with a gun owned by appellant and the bullets used were LAPD-required ammunition,” the appellate ruling says. “Within weeks, appellant reported a gun that matched the likely murder weapon stolen, but only to Santa Monica police, not to her own department, which was investigating the murder.”
Defense attorneys argued on appeal that their client’s ability to defend herself in court was compromised in part because one witness had died and some evidence had been destroyed.
“We discern no error in the trial court’s determination that the substantial justification for the delay outweighed any marginal prejudice demonstrated by appellant, and that she failed to establish a violation of her due process rights,” the appellate panel found.
Among other claims, the defense said they should have been allowed to present evidence at trial about another burglary in the area.
But the justices found that the second burglary “differed radically” from the Rasmussen killing and agreed with the lower court’s decision not to admit that testimony into evidence.
The panel also found that search warrants of Lazarus’ home and computers were supported by probable cause.
Rasmussen’s family filed a civil suit against the LAPD in 2010, alleging that the agency should be held responsible for failing to consider Lazarus a suspect, despite her father’s suspicions, which he shared with detectives.
The lower court ruled that the family had waited too long to file suit and the California Supreme Court declined to review the case.