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Judge rules on DNA testing in Sawyer murder case


(Update with afternoon hearing, judge’s ruling)

With family and friends of homicide victim Kaylee Sawyer looking on, as well as defendant Edwin Lara’s parents, prosecutors and defense lawyers clashed at a Thursday court hearing over the reliability of the Oregon State Police Crime Lab’s handling of DNA evidence.

A defense lawyer asked that an independent consultant be allowed not just to review the evidence but observe all future OSP testing. At the close of the hearing, Deschutes County Circuit Judge Michael Adler agreed to the observer’s presence at crime lab testing, though with limitations.

A scheduled three-hour hearing to address forensic testing issues instead was extended after a midday break for more testimony in the case of Lara, whose trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 10.

The former COCC campus safety officer is accused of abducting and killing Sawyer on the campus last July, then burying her body west of Redmond and fleeing south to California, where he was arrested after a string of other alleged crimes.

Defense lawyer Benjamin Kim noted a backlog of evidence to process and past mishandling of evidence at the OSP Crime Lab, noting the DA’s office had raised its own concerns in the past. He asked the judge to order that the independent DNA evidence expert hired by the defense be on hand for any further OSP processing of DNA samples held as evidence in the case.

Lara’s attorney also claimed the crime lab may have violated a court order issued last August when it started testing three cotton swabs of DNA without the defense present.

The defense lawyer called to the stand their private DNA analysis consultant, Karen Lawless, who said she’d seen DNA evidence mishandled before, such as tubes incorrectly handled or labeled.

But Deputy District Attorney Mary Anderson said requiring the other expert’s presence for all further OSP testing likely would result in an even larger backlog on other cases in which DNA test results are needed to proceed.

Kim called it “preposterous” to claim that allowing an outside expert to observe testing would cause more of a backup in the crime lab, noting similar court orders in other counties.

Anderson also questioned Lawless over her qualifications, and she acknowledged she had not worked in such a lab or been tested for proficiency for about 10 years.

Anderson called an OSP forensics supervisor, Stephanie Winters Ceremano, to the stand to detail the department’s policies to assure proper handling and testing of DNA swabs held as evidence. The prosecutor also argued that granting the defense request could violate the OSP forensics operation policy manual, and that, in turn, could threaten the department’s accreditation.

It’s rare but not unprecedented for outside observers to be allowed to watch OSP processing of DNA evidence, having happened nearly a decade ago.

During the testimony, Lara, chained at the waist, sat by Kim and wrote occasional notes on a notepad for his attorney to see.

At the end of the day, the judge ruled the state did not violate a court order and agreed with the prosecution’s findings.

Adler said the state should provide notice 14 days in advance to the defense for any DNA testing and allow the defense’s independent observer to be on hand, but only when it complies with crime lab procedures. He said the OSP Crime Lab has sufficient evidence for the defense to conduct independent testing, should they choose to.

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