EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

California Cold Case Trial Involves Lividity Evidence

According to an article in yesterday's Ventura County Star,

The preliminary hearing for a man accused of the murder of a pregnant woman and allegedly dumping her body at a local high school parking lot and the killing another woman nearly 40 years ago began Monday.

Wilson Chouest, 64, dressed in blue and orange jail garb, appeared before Ventura County Superior Court Judge Nancy Ayers. Prosecutors said Chouest is responsible for the July 1980 killings of an unidentified pregnant woman whose body was found at Westlake High School's upper parking lot and another unidentified female victim found in Kern County.

For the next 22 years, these killings went unsolved before "a 2012 search of a DNA databank of people arrested across the United States linked Chouest to DNA collected from the victims and their clothing."

Dr. C. Peter Speth, a former county assistant medical examiner who conducted an autopsy on "Ventura County Jane Doe," testified at the preliminary hearing.

Speth said there was evidence that "Ventura County Jane Doe" had tried to fight against her assailant, while large droplets of blood on the parking lot pavement showed she had been dragged to a hillside by the school parking lot.

Based on signs of lividity, "Ventura County Jane Doe" was face down less than 10 to 12 hours, Speth testified.

The article is short on details regarding this conclusion, but it later notes that "Jane Doe was facedown" when she was found. As a result, my inference is that Dr. Speth concluded Doe had partially fixed lividity when she was found. As I've noted before, lividity takes about 8-12 hours (or more) to become fully fixed; before that passage of time, lividity is merely partially fixed. Given that Doe's anterior lividity is consistent with the position in which she was found, it seems safe to assume that Dr. Speth's conclusion was based upon lividity being partially fixed.  

There might, however, be some issues with Dr. Speth's testimony. According to the article,

When asked by Andre Nintcheff, of the public defender's office, if he made the same observations [about lividity] in his initial reports, Speth said he only made that determination recently based on his experience with about 220 other cases he has worked on since 1980.

It will be interesting to see the Dr. Speth's full testimony and how the defense attacks it at trial.



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I'm curious about Adnans options for raising the livor mortis issue after his conviction. Could that have happened? If so, why didn't it?

Posted by: Dan | Jun 22, 2016 12:40:45 AM

Dan: It could have been raised in the initial PCR petition, but the Nicolas case makes it pretty clear that it wouldn't have been a winning argument. It couldn't have been raised in the recently reopened PCR proceedings.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 22, 2016 7:22:37 AM

Can you shed any light on the claim that the lividity wasn't a real issue as it has not been raised in any appeal/pcr proceedings? Thanks

Posted by: Dan | Jun 22, 2016 2:25:59 PM

Dan: Anyone with questions can look at Kulbicki and Nicolas (both out of Maryand) to see how difficult it is to win an ineffective assistance of counsel claim based on failure(s) related to expert evidence. Indeed, in Nicolas, there was a letter from the prosecutor indicating that lividity was “the whole case.”

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 22, 2016 4:40:38 PM

This is a great article on prosecutorial misconduct. It explains the reasons why the culture of rights denial exists. The author might be a good interview for Undisclosed, though I think he's vacationing in China this month sometime.

Posted by: Lagaya1 | Jun 23, 2016 9:39:06 AM

Lagaya1 I read and retweeted that article. You're right it is excellent!

Posted by: My real name is Cathy | Jun 27, 2016 4:56:05 PM

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