ERROR PIVOTAL IN RASMUSSEN TRIAL / DETECTIVE'S FAILURE TO RECORD HE MOVED VICTIM'S BODY USED BY PROSECUTION TO ATTACK DEFENSE
Keywords: Crime, Murder, Court, Pierce County, Law/Legal, Investigation/Probe, Mistake/Error, Death, Child/Children, Police, Science, Evidence
Byline: John Gillie; The News Tribune
A possibly critical error in the investigation of 9-year-old Cynthia Allinger's death - a detective's failure to record that he moved the girl's body - has become a prosecution weapon in her alleged killer's trial.
Pierce County prosecutors are using the lack of accurate information about the original location of Allinger's body to counter a barrage of scientific evidence offered by defense attorneys in the murder case against Guy Rasmussen.
Rasmussen, 32, faces a potential death penalty if convicted.
No one is sure of exactly where Allinger's body was found because Pierce County detective Robert Floberg never wrote a report noting he moved the body several feet when he discovered it the night of July 17, 1996.
And Floberg is unsure even today how far or in what direction he moved the body before he called in forensic investigators.
The time and place of Allinger's death is critical to the prosecution's case. Prosecutors contend Rasmussen, a former rock band musician, raped and killed Allinger on July 4, 1996. Rasmussen then hid the body under a pile of carpeting near an abandoned Lakewood house, they contend. Defense attorneys contend Allinger died several days later. They say Rasmussen couldn't have murdered her because he was under police surveillance or out of town during the time defense experts say the young girl died.
Defense attorneys Fred Leatherman and Linda Sullivan said they didn't learn that Floberg had moved the body until he testified last month in Rasmussen's murder trial. Deputy prosecutor Barbara Corey-Boulet, however, said the detective disclosed the information at a hearing in January 1998.
Floberg testified last month that, following up on a letter from a psychic, he went to the site late on July 17, smelled the odor of decaying flesh and found Allinger's body covered with carpeting.
Floberg told attorneys recently that he moved the body several feet and might have rotated the pile of carpeting in another direction in the process of discovering the body.
Because it was growing dark, detectives placed a tarp over the body on the carpet pile and waited until the next morning to begin their forensic investigation.
Deputy prosecutors Corey-Boulet and Lisa Wagner in cross-examining defense science experts this week suggested they reached mistaken conclusions about when Allinger was killed.
They contend the experts based their conclusions about Allinger's time of death on wrong or foggy assumptions about where the body was found.
Two scientists hired by the defense, one a botanist and the other an insect expert, testified this week that Allinger's body had been at the site only a few days before it was found.
Indiana forensic entomologist Neal Haskell testified Thursday that based on the age and kind of insects present in Allinger's body, she died no earlier than July 7 and as late as July 10, 1996.
Haskell's testimony contradicted that of prosecution entomologist Dr. Lee Goff of the University of Hawaii. Goff, working with the same evidence, said Allinger could have died as early as July 4. Goff testified early in the trial.
Both scientists based their conclusions about when Allinger died on years of scientific studies about when and how certain insects attack a body and how quickly they mature under certain temperature conditions.
Haskell challenged Goff's methodology. He contended the prosecution expert used less exact information about the weather during the time Allinger was missing and failed to consider the effect of such factors as the temperature of the insects during the day they were in transit to Goff's Hawaiian laboratory.
In cross-examining Haskell, Corey-Boulet said the defense expert had failed to take into account the effect the several layers of carpet had on keeping insects from reaching the body.
Haskell acknowledged the carpet wrapping could have affected the time it took for insects to discover the body, but not much.
He said insects attracted by body odors have invaded bodies locked in cars and vans with little difficulty. Haskell said it was difficult to assess how much the body was protected from exposure because detectives didn't record how many layers of carpet were folded over the body.
Another defense expert, plant physiologist Stephen Verhey, testified that the body could not have been at the site for more than six days.
He based that opinion on his study of photos of vegetation that he thought had been beneath the carpet pile containing her body.
Verhey's conclusions also were based on his studies of how plants react to pressure, lack of light and water.
But Verhey acknowledged he based his initial study on where photos taken on the morning after the discovery placed the body. He acknowledged he was told after Floberg's testimony that the body had been moved before the photos were taken.
Prosecutor Wagner noted one photo taken after the carpet and body were removed showed a blackened piece of ground where vegetation had died.
Verhey said it would have taken more than two weeks for the plants to die so completely.
Wagner suggested the carpet could have been on that spot for a long time before Allinger's body was placed in it.
Defense attorneys countered that the blackened piece of ground wasn't necessarily the child's body's original resting place because Floberg couldn't say where that site had been.
Verhey also noted that because investigators hadn't measured the dimensions of the pile, it was impossible to say whether the blackened area was the same size as the carpet pile.
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* Staff writer John Gillie covers courts in Pierce County. Reach him at 253-597-8663 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org