A criminalist who alleges she suffered emotional distress starting when a retired LAPD cold-case detective ignored evidence that linked another detective to the 1986 killing of a romantic rival deserves a multimillion-dollar verdict in her favor, her attorney told a jury Thursday.
In his final argument to the Los Angeles Superior Court panel hearing trial of 50-year-old Jennifer Francis’ lawsuit, lawyer John Taylor said his client is a whistleblower who suffered a backlash for coming forward.
“They crushed this woman. They took her hope, her work,” Taylor said.
But lawyer Reginald Roberts Jr., on behalf of the city, said Francis’ case does not make it across the first required legal threshold because she never proved any violation of any state or federal law. He also said Francis was only one of many people who worked together to help bring about the arrest and conviction of LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus.
“The only one who committed a crime in this case is in prison,” Robert said.
Francis sued the city in October 2013, alleging retired Detective Cliff Shepard, formerly of the Robbery-Homicide Division’s cold-case unit, ignored the results of DNA tests that Francis performed as a criminalist in the LAPD’s Scientific Investigation Division. Those results gained importance years later when another detective determined that Lazarus killed nurse Sherri Rasmussen in a jealous rage.
Francis alleges that Shepard 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 the nurse’s slaying.
Rasmussen was found beaten and shot on Feb. 24, 1986, in the Van Nuys townhouse she shared with her husband. Rasmussen had married John Ruetten, Lazarus’ one-time love interest, three months before her death.
Lazarus, a former theft investigator, 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 Shepard 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 Shepard’s protection and cover-up for the LAPD detective out of fear of backlash and retaliation in the crime lab and from the department.”
Taylor told jurors that attorneys for the city continually misled them during the trial, citing as an example their argument that Francis has remained with the LAPD through all these years, makes about $133,000 annually and received a promotion and salary increases.
The promotion actually came before Francis came forward and the only raises she has received are normal step increases in pay, Taylor said.
“These are intentional statements to mislead and confuse you,” Taylor said.
But Roberts said of all the people who worked with Francis in helping to solve the Rasmussen case, Francis is the only one alleging retaliation. He also said too much of the focus of the plaintiff’s case has focused on the actions of Shepard, who he said was busy much of the time with other major cases.
“We’re not here to put him on trial,” Roberts said. “We’re here to determine what if anything happened to the plaintiff.”
Roberts said that rather than retaliate against Francis, the LAPD gave formal recognition to the plaintiff and others for their work leading to the arrest of Lazarus.
“Does that seem like they’re looking the other way?,” Roberts asked.
In his testimony, Shepard denied he wanted to protect Lazarus from prosecution and said he never heard of the woman until her June 2009 arrest.
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