With jury selection scheduled to begin Tuesday in an LAPD criminalist’s lawsuit alleging the department deliberately overlooked evidence that linked a former detective to the 1986 murder of another woman, the judge in the case has ordered last-minute pretrial testimony from a physician who concluded a key witness in the case was unfit to testify.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Holly Fujie said she wants Dr. Annette Rittman to answer questions from lawyers about a March 2017 letter she wrote in which she said the late psychologist Dorothy Tucker was a patient of hers at the time and that Tucker was “cognitively impaired” by Alzheimer’s disease.
Plaintiff Jennifer Francis filed her whistleblower retaliation suit in October 2013, alleging then-Detective Cliff Sheppard of the Robbery-Homicide Division’s cold case unit ignored the results of DNA tests that she performed as a criminalist in the LAPD’s Scientific Investigation Division. Those results gained importance years later when another detective determined that then-LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus killed a romantic rival.
Francis alleges that Sheppard knew Lazarus had ties to the victim, Sherri Rasmussen, but did not want to consider her a suspect in the killing of her onetime boyfriend’s bride. Francis also claims she was told by supervisors beginning in 2005 to ignore possible evidence implicating Lazarus in Rasmussen’s slaying. Sheppard is now retired.
Rasmussen, a nurse, was found beaten and shot in February 1986 in the Van Nuys townhouse that she shared with her husband. Lazarus was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced in May 2012 to 27 years to life in prison.
Lawyers for Francis say the City Attorney’s Office, which previously handled the city’s defense in the case, “engaged in a campaign of misrepresentation” concerning Tucker’s ability to testify. Their court papers state that they sought Tucker’s deposition as early as 2015 because they believed she was the only person with first-hand knowledge of the “real reason plaintiff was ordered to undergo involuntary psychological treatment” by the city.
Francis’ lawyers maintain that the plaintiff’s supervisors ordered her to be examined by Tucker as part of their campaign of retaliation and harassment against her for coming forward with her allegations against Lazarus. The plaintiffs’ lawyers also allege that in order to “cover her tracks,” Tucker altered the plaintiff’s medical records.
But when the notice of deposition was sent to the city in 2015, the City Attorney’s Office responded that Tucker was dead, according to Francis’ attorneys’ court papers.
Francis’ lawyers say they conducted their own investigation and determined that Tucker was still alive, according to their court papers. They obtained a court order for Tucker’s deposition in February 2017, but the city told Tucker to ignore a subpoena and she died in December of that year, according to Francis’ attorneys’ court papers.
Francis’ attorneys want sanctions imposed on the defense for the alleged misrepresentations.
However, in a March 2017 email to plaintiff’s attorney Courtney McNicholas — a copy of which is attached to the city’s court papers — Deputy City Attorney John Anthony, who previously headed the city’s defense in the case, denied ever saying that Tucker was dead when she was actually still alive. He also said he “no first-hand knowledge of any such representation ever being made.”
The City Attorney’s Office handed over the city’s defense of the Francis case last year to the private firm of Sanders, Roberts, LLP. In their court papers, the current defense team states that sanctions are unwarranted and that Tucker was “unavailable for deposition because she was seriously ill with the Alzheimer’s disease which ultimately killed her.”
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