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DNA experts’ testimony muddles Cooper re-trial

By Staff | Feb 27, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG – Accord-ing to TV crime dramas, it’s immediate and infallible. But in reality, DNA evidence is complex and sometimes inconclusive.
After three DNA experts testified on Friday, jurors in Fred Cooper’s double homicide trial will draw their own conclusions from results pulled out of stains, garments and objects collected in the case.
Attorneys from both sides offered their own suggestions.
Prosecutors pointed to two samples that showed Cooper as a possible DNA contributor. One was from the blue nightgown Michelle Andrews wore the night she died. The other was from a swab of a fingernail on her right hand.
Analysts compared the samples against DNA standards for the four major players in Cooper’s case: Cooper himself, Steven Andrews, Michelle Andrews and Kellie Ballew.
The Andrews were found dead in the bedroom of their Gateway home on Dec. 27, 2005. Prosecutors say Cooper killed them out of jealousy over an affair between Ballew, his longtime girlfriend, and Steven Andrews.
Both samples showed mixed profiles, DNA analyst Julie Heinig said. That is, each showed characteristics not only of Cooper’s DNA, but Steven Andrews’.
Defense attorneys seized on the uncertainty. In a lengthy cross-examination, Beatriz Taquechel, one of Cooper’s lawyers, stood with Heinig before a chart and had her explain to jurors how the testing worked.
Heinig, an analyst with a private laboratory in Ohio, focused on male DNA by searching for markers on the Y-chromosome, the chromosome common to men. She looked at 17 markers and analyzed each man’s DNA –Andrews’ and Cooper’s — to see if they matched the overall structure.
With both samples, each man’s DNA structure was similar enough to the structure seen in the sample. They were both potential contributors, she said.
Taquechel noted that at certain markers, Cooper’s and Andrews’ DNA were the same.
“They have the same allele,” she said, pointing to one of the markers on the chart. “So we don’t know if the contributor is Fred or if its Steven.”
Heinig said that’s true with individual markers, but that the odds that only Steven’s allele would be contributed in each case was very low.
“There’s no reason to believe this is all going to be coming from Steven,” she said.
But she couldn’t say in what proportions it came or how likely it was the results could indicate a third person.
Prosecutor Randy McGruther asked Heinig about a foreign body found in the fingernail swab sample. A single allele didn’t match any of the standards.
“It could very well be a contaminant,” Heinig said. She guessed that an analyst may have coughed or sneezed near the sample.
Taquechel suggested it could be evidence of a third person, someone unaccounted for at the crime scene.
Heinig dismissed the idea.
“I would expect to see the presence of a third person at more than just one (marker) in the one instance,” she said.
Two other analysts, one from the FDLE and another from the same laboratory as Heinig, told jurors about their testing procedures and the number of samples they saw. Analysts first tested for blood, and then sought extractable DNA.
In some instances blood wasn’t needed to find DNA — a pair of Cooper’s motorcycle gloves, for example, contained his DNA from skin cells.
No blood was found on Cooper’s camouflage jacket or its mesh liner. His former boss at a Fort Myers motorcycle shop has testified he saw Cooper scrubbing the jacket with harsh cleaning chemicals at his work. Sarah
Wojslaw, Heinig’s coworker, said even water and soap can damage DNA evidence.
A pink rag found on the edge of the Andrews’ property had blood stains and single-source DNA that matched none of the four major players, several analysts testified. It also had other stains, which could have been from oil or grease, Wojslaw testified.
A vaginal swab taken from Michelle Andrews showed the presence of semen and two possible DNA contributors, Michelle and Steven Andrews, Wojslaw said. That account works against Cooper’s testimony from his first trial, in which he claimed he had sex with Michelle Andrews in a vehicle in her driveway on the night of her death.
His semen hasn’t been found in the vehicle, in the vaginal swab or on Andrews’ nightgown.
Also on Friday, jurors heard from Jimmy Lynn Craven, a former sales associate with WCI, the company that developed the Cypress Point neighborhood where Steven and Michelle Andrews lived.
Craven told jurors that a man fitting Cooper’s description asked her for the gate code to Cypress Point on Dec. 23, 2005, four days before the bodies were found. The man drove a motorcycle, she said. He said was renting a room in Cypress Point, but he wouldn’t name the person with whom he lived.
Craven didn’t give him the code.
Following Cooper’s arrest, she saw his picture on TV, and, “It’s just like the hair on the back of my neck stood up,” she said.
Also, the state tried to submit as testimony an account from Barbara Andrews involving Steven and Michelle Andrews’ then 2-year-old son, Lukasz. After jurors left the courtroom for the day, Andrews took the stand to give her account.
She said that soon after Cooper’s January 2006 arrest, she and her husband, Russell, were in Fort Myers and were spending the day with Lukasz. As he was running around their hotel room, he caught sight of a newspaper hanging off a table. Fred Cooper’s picture was on the front page, she said.
He stopped “dead in his tracks” and stared at it, she said.
“He looked frightened to me,” she said.
Ken Garber, one of Cooper’s attorneys, objected to the testimony, calling it hearsay. Judge Thomas S. Reese agreed. Jurors will not hear the story.
Court resumes on Monday, as the prosecution rests its case and the defense begins its own. It’s unknown whether Cooper will testify.
Reese wants deliberations to begin Tuesday. He advised jurors to bring their personal belongings that day, in preparation of being sequestered in a hotel.