Palo Alto police forgot to call the Santa Clara County Coroner's Office and delayed examination of murder victim Jennifer Schipsi's body for 18 hours, a Santa Clara County forensic pathologist admitted Tuesday afternoon (Jan. 4).
The revelation was the second challenge of the day to how police handled evidence. Defense attorney Mark Geragos attempted to dismantle arson and other evidence implicating his client, Bulos "Paul" Zumot, in the Oct. 15, 2009, strangulation and burning of his girlfriend, Schipsi.
Prosecutors say Zumot and Schipsi's two-year relationship was marked by domestic violence and that she had once obtained a restraining order against him.
Forensic pathologist Glenn V. Nazareno said his examination of Schipsi's charred remains showed she had died after being strangled and was then set on fire to cover up the crime.
Schipsi's hyoid bone in the windpipe had been crushed, he said. There was evidence of significant bleeding in her throat, showing that her heart was pumping at the time her throat was crushed. He said there was no soot in her esophagus or lungs, indicating that she was not breathing when the fire was set.
Schipsi's body was badly charred and she was identified through dental records, he said.
But on cross-examination by Geragos, Nazareno admitted that police had first told his office not to come immediately to the burned Addison Avenue cottage to pick up her remains, but to wait for the police to call. That call did not come until about 18 hours later, breaking protocol, because police forgot to call, he said.
"Wouldn't it have been infinitely better to have been there sooner?" Geragos asked.
Nazareno said it would, but the delay did not alter the evidence or his conclusion that Schipsi had died from being strangled.
"Could it have affected the time of death?" Geragos asked.
Nazareno said it could, but the extent that her body was burned probably would have more impact on that determination.
"Given the fact that a fire was created ... all bets are off" in terms of establishing a precise time of death, he said.
Geragos continued to press Nazareno: "None of the protocol was followed in this case?" Geragos asked.
"Yes, that's correct," Nazareno said.
Geragos had earlier attacked the testimony of Dennis Johnsen, Santa Clara County chief fire investigator, whose sniffer dog, Rosie, found accelerant on Zumot's shoes, socks, pants waistband, sweatshirt and on the passenger-side floor mat and rug of his black Land Rover.
Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives (ATF) laboratory testing only found accelerant on the shoes, Geragos pointed out.
He showed the jury an ATF report that noted K-9s (sniffer dogs) will sometimes come up with a false positive for accelerants. "Lab verification of all positives is necessary," according to the report.
Johnsen said he did not agree with ATF's analysis. At a training for dogs and handlers, several had complained that ATF was bringing their testing levels down too low to be able to detect what dogs can sniff.
Geragos questioned if anyone at the training had ever recorded the complaints. Johnsen said he did not know. He could not say how many false positives Rosie had produced. In seven years with Rosie, she had done 60,000 to 70,000 sniffing times, he estimated.
"There's no way to test those thousands of times," to find which were false positives, Geragos countered.
Johnsen said he was confident the dog had correctly identified the accelerant. The dog's behaviors and actions were strong positive alerts, he said.
Geragos also pointed to chemist's notes, which Johnsen said he had not seen.
"Are you aware of a strong smell of cologne on those items?" Geragos asked. Johnsen said he didn't recall smelling cologne.
Geragos asked: What if components of some colognes are the same chemically as in gasoline? Had Rosie ever been tested for false positives for cologne?
Johnsen admitted she hadn't.
Johnsen confirmed that other combustible products, such as tar paper, contain similar substances as gasoline but there were no such distractors for the dog in the car, he said.
Pressed by Geragos over what could cause the discrepancy between the dog's and ATF's analysis, Johnsen seemed flustered.
Something could have happened to the evidence after it was repackaged and sent to the lab, but he did not know what, if anything had occurred.