Jurors found former Los Angeles police detective Stephanie Lazarus guilty Thursday of murdering her ex-boyfriend's wife in Van Nuys just over 26 years ago. Lazarus's defense says it's planning to appeal the verdict.
Lazarus, 51, was convicted of first-degree murder. Lazarus shot 29-year-old nursing supervisor Sherri Rasmussen three times in the chest on Feb. 24, 1986, just three months after the victim married Lazarus' one-time love interest, John Ruetten.
"This case was a tragedy on every level," said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck in a press release. In addition to the death of the victim, "the LAPD family felt a sense of betrayal to have an officer commit such a terrible crime."
Beck expressed his condolences and offered the victim's family an apology. "I am also sorry it took us so long to solve this case and bring a measure of justice to this tragedy. We recognize that no verdict by a court can bring Sherri back, nor assuage the grief your family suffered over the past decades."
The conviction came after a three-week trial that included testimony from a forensic expert who said the DNA was a match to defendant Stephanie Lazarus.
Her defense attorney countered that the DNA was packaged improperly and deteriorated while stored in a coroner's freezer for two decades. He also suggested there might have been evidence tampering.
Lazarus, who had smiled at her family as she entered court, showed no reaction as the verdict was delivered in a courtroom ringed by 10 sheriff's deputies.
The family of victim Sherri Rasmussen cried softly.
The eight-woman, four-man jury deliberated for less than two full days before delivering the verdict.
This morning, jurors heard testimony read back to them from a neighbor and a housekeeper working next door to Rasmussen and Ruetten.
The jury was then instructed that they could consider first- and second-degree murder charges. It took them less than an hour after that to return a verdict.
Beck also thanked the officers involved for their work to solve the case.
"The family is relieved that this 26-year nightmare has concluded with the positive identification of the person who killed their daughter," said John Taylor, an attorney for the Rasmussen family.
Lazarus' family also was present.
"I'm just devastated," said Steven Lazarus, the defendant's brother. "It's been a difficult thing for our whole family. I have very strong feelings about how the trial played out. It is very sad."
Lazarus could face 27 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole when she is sentenced on May 4 for the murder and a gun enhancement imposed by the jury.
The case was submitted to jurors on Tuesday after intense closing arguments by both sides.
The case went cold after detectives attributed the murder to a burglary and found no evidence to link to a suspect. The case was reopened in 2004 when detectives found there was DNA evidence from a bite-mark swab, which was analyzed and showed that it was from a woman other than Rasmussen. The DNA was uploaded into a DNA database of convicted criminals, but there was no match.
It was reopened once again in Feb. 2009 due to Van Nuys area homicide detecitves having a new theory about women in Rasmussen's life wanting to kill her. Other suspects were eliminated through interviews and DNA testing, leaving Lazarus as the only remaining suspect. Investigators secretly obtained a DNA swab from Lazarus, and the case was investigated by officers located next door to Lazarus's own office.
Lazarus was arrested in June 2009, with her trial beginning Feb. 6, 2012.
During the trial, prosecutors focused on the relationship of Lazarus and Ruetten, who became her lover after they graduated from college.
He testified that he never intended to marry Lazarus, although they were intimate for about a year. He also said she enticed him into having sex with her shortly before his wedding.
"Here's the deal," he testified. "It was clear she was very upset that I was getting married and moving on."
Lazarus' lawyer, Mark Overland, ridiculed the claim of a fatal attraction between Lazarus and Ruetten, saying she never tried to reunite with her former lover after his wife was gone,
"So this obsessing with John must have fizzled out I guess," he said.
Lazarus went on to marry another policeman and adopt a daughter. She rose in the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, becoming a detective in charge of art forgeries and thefts.
Overland also pointed to the lack of physical evidence against her. No blood, fingerprints, hair or fibers connected her to the scene.
But prosecutor Shannon Presby told jurors the case was based on more than just DNA. At the outset of the trial, he said it featured "a bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart."
Lazarus' gun was never found, but Presby called experts to testify that bullets fired into Rasmussen's body matched those issued to police officers in 1986.
Lazarus' husband attended most of the trial along with other family members. Ruetten sat across the courtroom with Rasmussen's family.
The deathly pale defendant and her white-haired former boyfriend never looked at each other. But their past moved before them on a movie screen as both sides showed pictures of them as a young couple.
Among the trial's most dramatic moments came when Ruetten testified tearfully about finding his wife slain. He said it never entered his mind that Lazarus might be responsible.
Interviews with Stephanie Lazarus:
This story has been updated.