An LAPD criminalist who alleges the department deliberately overlooked evidence that linked a detective to the 1986 killing of a nurse faced an internal backlash for coming forward and damage to her reputation, her attorney told a jury Friday.
“The LAPD turned the power of the badge on one of its own,” lawyer Matthew McNicholas said during opening statements in the Los Angeles Superior Court trial of criminalist Jennifer Francis’ whistleblower suit against the city. “They looked the other way to protect a sworn member of the department who had murdered someone.”
But attorney Reginald Roberts Jr., on behalf of the city of Los Angeles, said Francis still has her job that pays her $130,000 annually and that she was only a part of a team of people who helped solve the cold-case killing. All of Francis’ complaints about her treatment were investigated and no retaliation occurred, Roberts said.
“We investigated, the plaintiff didn’t like the results, so here we are,” Roberts said.
Francis sued the city in Los Angeles Superior Court in October 2013, alleging 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 LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus killed romantic rival Sherri Rasmussen.
Francis alleges that Sheppard knew Lazarus had ties to the victim and did not want to consider her a suspect. Francis also claims she was told by supervisors beginning in 2005 to ignore possible evidence implicating Lazarus in Rasmussen’s slaying.
Rasmussen was found beaten and shot in February 1986 in the Van Nuys townhouse she shared with her husband, whom Lazarus had dated. Lazarus was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced in May 2012 to 27 years to life in prison.
Francis’ version of events leading up to her suit were outlined in a 12-page, sworn declaration she gave in 2016.
“Detective Sheppard had made it very clear to me, with his tone and language, that the LAPD detective (Lazarus) who had a prior sexual relationship with Rasmussen’s husband was not considered a suspect,” Francis said. “Initially, I remained silent about Detective Sheppard’s protection and cover-up for the LAPD detective out of fear of backlash and retaliation in the crime lab and from the department.”
Francis says she “heard” that Detective Ya-May Christle “suffered intense retaliation for reporting LAPD’s involvement in the cover-up of the murder of (rapper) Biggie Smalls. I also knew that Lt. Jim Gavin was retaliated against after he spoke out against the sloppy, dishonest, false and biased investigation that led to the wrongful conviction and decades-long imprisonment of Bruce Lisker for the murder of his mother.”
Lisker was found guilty of the March 10, 1983 slaying of his 66-year-old mother, Dorka, in the family’s Sherman Oaks residence. He was later exonerated and released in August 2009.
Francis says Sheppard became “agitated, angry and aggressive” with her after she asked him if it was possible that Rasmussen knew her attacker.
“He raised his voice and insisted that Rasmussen was the victim of a botched burglary by a male-female team,” Francis says.
Sheppard did say that an LAPD detective had an “on-again, off-again sexual relationship with the victim’s husband,” but he also declared that “she (the detective) is not a part of this,” according to Francis.
Detective James Nuttall contacted Francis in February 2009, said he was working on the Rasmussen case and told her had read her reports and analyses she prepared in the Rasmussen case in 2005, she says.
“We think it may be one of us,” Nuttall told Francis, according to her declaration.
Francis devotes several pages of her sworn statement to criticisms of her former boss, Harry Klann.
“I knew and had heard that my immediate supervisor, Harry Klann, had a long history of discrimination and retaliation directed at women in the crime lab that the crime lab and LAPD tolerated and permitted to go unchecked,” Francis said.
She claimed Klann repeatedly called female criminalists “stupid” and once pointed a laser pointer pen light into the eyes of a female student lab worker and laughed.
Francis says she told a deputy district attorney in late 2009 that she believed detectives were improperly excluding and protecting potential suspects in the Rasmussen case. She also maintains that she reported to Klann her concerns about possible improper police practices in the killing, but that he told her she should “keep a low profile — meaning I should not say anything more about it.”
Francis says that in response to her reporting the violations, she was “wrongfully forced to undergo psychological analysis.”
In addition, Klann told Francis’ supervisors and colleagues that she was “mentally unstable” and that she “slept with a gun under her pillow,” Francis says.
Francis says she was removed from providing further analyses in the case of serial murder suspect Lonnie Franklin Jr., also known as the Grim Sleeper, even though she had provided important information to the Department of Justice in the effort to narrow down the number of potential suspects.
But Roberts said that despite Francis’ claims that even the District Attorney’s Office has been reluctant to have her involved in their cases, she has testified in court 75 to 85 times in recent years. He said she turned down an award she was scheduled to receive in the Rasmussen case because taking it would have conflicted with her lawsuit strategy.
Roberts told jurors that Francis was referred to psychological services because her supervisors were concerned the impact of the death of her father on her as well as her divorce from her husband. Francis suffers from hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland can’t make enough thyroid hormone to keep the body running normally, but did not follow her doctor’s advice to take prescribed medicine, Roberts said.