Judge to rule on murder charges | TheUnion.com

Judge to rule on murder charges

A Nevada County Superior Court judge is expected to rule this afternoon on a motion to dismiss charges against murder suspect Lauren Hayes.

Judge John Darlington heard testimony from forensic experts, Nevada County Sheriff’s investigators and California Department of Justice criminologists Wednesday regarding the public defender’s motion to dismiss allegations against Hayes, accused of murdering her ex-boyfriend Lawrence Leffingwell on Sept. 5, 2003.

Leffingwell’s body was found that night, shot in the neck and partially inside his Cadillac at Edward’s Crossing near the Yuba River in Nevada City.

Hayes allegedly told investigators two days after the murder she knew nothing of the incident but later admitted to being present during the shooting.

She pleaded innocent Sept. 24, 2003, and fingered Cedar Ridge resident Joshua Everton as the shooter.

Investigators say the evidence points to Hayes as the killer.

Wearing a light blue blazer and a white headband, Hayes sat calmly throughout Wednesday’s lengthy hearing, occasionally raising her eyebrows and whispering into public defender Thomas Anderson’s ear.

Forensic scientist Dr. John Thornton, called by Anderson, testified that sheriff’s investigators did not process the crime scene properly or adequately preserve potentially exculpatory evidence found in the Cadillac and a white truck allegedly spotted at the scene around the time of the murder.

Thornton based much of his testimony on video footage shot by investigators at the crime scene.

He said it was “inappropriate procedure” for a female detective to approach Leffingwell’s body in an effort to calm his wolf-mix dog, which was barking uncontrollably inside the car.

“There was no particular care in her approach,” Thornton said. He said she could have contaminated evidence such as footprints and tire tracks belonging to the murderer and the murderer’s vehicle.

In his report submitted to the court, Thornton claims deputies stored the Cadillac in the sheriff’s evidence yard with a missing window for months, exposing physical evidence to rain and snow, including a stub from Leffingwell’s paycheck, cashed at approximately 3 p.m. the day of his murder.

Investigators did not recover the pay stub from the stored Cadillac until more than two months after the murder, he said, too late to view a bank videotape of Leffingwell and anyone who might have been with him at the bank.

“I don’t question that people made judgment calls,” Thornton said. “I would question whether it was good judgment.”

Terri Fickies, a criminologist for the California Department of Justice for 31 years who processed the Leffingwell crime scene, was called to the stand by Assistant District Attorney Ron Wolfson.

Fickies equated Thornton’s testimony to “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”

“I have never processed a crime scene without making mistakes,” Fickies said. “It’s the nature of life.”

He said he wished he had collected a cigarette butt at the scene but does not regret leaving other items inside the Cadillac for Nevada County sheriff’s investigators to process, such as a safe in the trunk.

“I don’t think I was negligent by not collecting them,” Fickies said. “We take what we think we need.”

Nevada County Sheriff’s Detective Stephen Tripp said leaving the Cadillac’s interior open to the elements for two months “was an oversight on our part” but testified that investigators followed standard procedure in the collection and processing of evidence.

The hearing will resume at 1:30 p.m. today in Nevada County Superior Court. Hayes’ trial is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Feb. 22.

To contact staff writer Robyn Moormeister, e-mail robynm@theunion.com or call 477-4236.

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