08/17/10 — Live from the courtroom: Maria Lauterbach's mother takes witness stand in trial

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Live from the courtroom: Maria Lauterbach's mother takes witness stand in trial

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on August 17, 2010 8:57 AM

News-Argus Video Report

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Mary Lauterbach, the mother of Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, answers questions Tuesday during the first-degree murder trial of ex-Marine Cesar Laurean. Laurean stands accused of Mrs. Lauterbach's daughter's murder.

The state continued its first-degree murder case against ex-Marine Cesar Laurean this morning with more witnesses expected to testify about the handling of evidence and their knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the death of Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach. Laurean, if convicted, could face life in prison. Prosecutors will not seek the death penalty in the case because of an extradition agreement with Mexico where Laurean fled after Lauterbach's death.

9:30 a.m.: Court resumes with the state calling Onslow County Sheriff's Office Maj. Donnie Worrell to the witness stand.

Worrell was involved in the chain of custody of numerous items of evidence in the crime scene investigation and transported items to the State Bureau of Investigation office in Raleigh. He confirmed his actions in the handling of evidence and affirmed he did not tamper with any evidence.

9:39 a.m.: The state calls Alice Green-Guy, a State Bureau of Investigation evidence technician to the stand.

Green-Guy told the court she is now retired from the agency, but confirmed she was a link in the chain of evidence custody, explaining that upon receiving the evidence from investigators she placed it in the SBI's vault and did not tamper with the evidence.

9:44 a.m.: The state calls Onslow County Sheriff's Office Sgt. T.J. Cavanagh.

Cavanagh is a crime scene investigator who prior to his law enforcement service was stationed at Camp Lejeune for many years. He was tasked with coordinating the investigation surrounding the case.

Cavanagh explained that he put out a bulletin nationwide for Laurean's truck on Jan. 11, 2008, after he met with Mrs. Laurean. He also administered the taking of DNA samples via cheek swabs from Dennis and Samantha Ward. Cavanagh then turned the swabs over to crime scene investigator Bill Meredith.

Cavanagh told the court he went into the Laurean home during the crime scene search and found the Lowe's receipt dated Dec. 16, 2007, at 4:45 p.m. listing the purchase of 12 concrete blocks, a wheelbarrow and a dishwasher.

During cross-examination McNeil asked Cavanagh if more than one bulletin was sent out nationwide and Cavanagh explained he had sent one out about Maria Lauterbach and her vehicle as well. Cavanagh then noted Lauterbach had a history of mental illness. The witness then stepped down from the stand.

9:56 a.m.: The state calls Onslow County Sheriff's Capt. Patrick Garvey, a crime scene investigator, to the stand.

Garvey told the jury he was involved in the chain of custody of crime scene evidence in the case. He also conducted a DNA swab on Laurean and sent the swabbing to the State Bureau of Investigation. He also swabbed Mrs. Laurean for DNA and sent the sample to the SBI.

During cross-examination, McNeil asked Garvey when he took the DNA sample from Mrs. Laurean and Garvey said he took the swab this July. Garvey then stepped down from the witness stand.

10:08 a.m.:  The state calls Special Agent Donald Faggart to the stand.

Faggart works for the State Bureau of Investigation and specializes in fingerprinting. Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith confirmed Faggart as "an expert" in forensic science and fingerprints.

Faggart told the court he uses his training to compare prints found to characteristics of prints taken by law enforcement in a crime investigation. He said he cannot always positively ID a print. Sometimes the surface of an object being tested isn't conducive to identifying prints, he said. Fingerprints are "very fragile" and can "easily be wiped away," he told the jury.

Faggart reviewed eight prints found in Lauterbach's car and could not identify any of them. The car "could have been cleaned," he said. Other factors like weather -- the extreme heat or cold -- could have distorted the prints as well.

He then looked at Lauterbach's debit card and told the court he never attempted to lift prints off the card. He explained that he had gone through many steps and determined there was no print on the card that he could use. The fact that the card was found outside could have been a factor because of exposure to the elements, he said. "What happened to the card before it got to its final resting place?" Faggart questioned. He also said that because the card was smooth with a slick surface it could easily be wiped clean.

Faggart testified that he also evaluated the For Sale sign in Lauterbach's car. He was able to determine there were no identifiable prints on the sign.

The state entered the items into evidence before turning the witness over to the defense who asked Faggart if there was another unit that handles trace evidence. He confirmed there is another unit and explained he has to rely on the agents collecting the prints to do his job effectively. The witness stepped down from the stand.

The jury then passed around the Lowe's receipt and the For Sale sign from Lauterbach's car.

10:47 a.m.: The state calls Special Agent Jenny Elwell to the witness stand.

Elwell is a forensic science expert who specializes in bodily fluids and conducts DNA analysis. She has worked for the SBI for 22 years and received many years of specialized training and is a training officer for her unit. Elwell has testified in more than 150 trials and was certified as an expert by Judge Smith before continuing with her testimony.

Elwell was asked to examine the evidence for blood. She evaluated items including a swab from the crime scene which she turned over for DNA analysis.

She also evaluated the crowbar for the presence of blood by conducting a visual and chemical test on the item. She concluded through testing the object showed indications of blood being present at the top of the crowbar. She then took swabs from the middle of the crowbar to "see who might have" handled it.

Elwell then used photos which were admitted into evidence as a visual aid while describing to the court how she tested the crowbar. She told the court she tested the top and the middle of the crowbar using swabs taken from the item. "There was definitely staining on the edge of the crowbar," she said. Using a close-up photo and a laser pointer, Elwell drew the court's attention to the areas of the crowbar where tests indicated blood could be present.

Court then recessed until 11:30 a.m.

Court resumes shortly after 11:30 a.m.: When court resumed the state subpoened Mrs. Laurean to testify. Through her attorney, she exercised her right to not testify. The jury was not present during the excusing of Mrs. Laurean from her subpoena.

Testimony from Elwell then resumed with her showing the courtroom where suspect areas were located on the inflatable raft and chemical testing indicated the presence of blood. She used a laser pointer to show the jury "reddish brown stains" on the raft.

Elwell then said she took swabs from the stains and passed them to a DNA analyst, SBI Special Agent Sharon R. Hinton.

Elwell then described her review of the tan pillow for the presence of blood and said she swabbed the pillow after a chemical test revealed the potential presence of blood on the item. She then showed pictures of the stains to the court, pointing out where on the pillow she saw what appeared to be blood. "This item did give chemical indications of the presence of blood."

Elwell then reviewed the paint equipment including a brush and roller. She processed each and every piece she told the jury and took samples from each item. She told the court she found a "suspect stain" and determined using the chemical testing there was the potential presence of blood on the objects. She then swabbed each item for DNA.

Elwell then detailed her handling of a swab taken from the peg board in the garage as well as a swab taken from the garage floor. She told the court using chemical testing she found positive indications that blood was present. She affirmed she did not alter any of the evidence.

Elwell then told the court she did not process the toothbrush from the Dodge Ram found at the Morrisville motel, explaining it was given directly to a DNA analyst for analysis.

Elwell told the court that just because a test indicates the presence of blood, it does not mean there is a large enough sample to determine a DNA match.

 During cross-examination McNeil asked Elwell to confirm she was a law enforcement officer and specify the type of chemical used in testing objects for possible blood. Elwell said that there are tests the specifically confirm blood is present but that the SBI lab uses a method to get an indication of presence. She explained that while handling evidence she wears gloves to protect herself from potentially hazardous fluids and to protect the evidence. She also stated that it is fair to say you cannot see a skin cell when asked about their use as evidence.The witness then stepped down from the witness stand.

12:07 p.m.: The state calls State Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Sharon R. Hinton to the witness stand.

Hinton is a forensic biologist with extensive training who as worked for the SBI for more than seven years. The judge certified her as an expert witness before she began her testimony.

Hinton explained to the court that DNA is "your genetic blueprint" and is a good way to eliminate suspects who are falsely accused of a crime. She told the court she analyzed evidence from the crime scene including a swab from a plastic container, the femur bone, two swabs from the crowbar, a swab from the inflatable raft, a swab from the paint roller and paint brush, a swab from the tan pillow from the garage, a swab from the crime scene and the toothbrush recovered from Laurean's truck. She also analyzed the cheek swabs from Dennis and Samantha Ward, she told the court, as well as the swabs for Cesar Laurean and later Christina Laurean. All of the items Hinton stated she reviewed were then admitted into evidence.

Court was then recessed until 2 p.m. for lunch.

When court resumed shortly after 2 p.m. Hinton continued her testimony about evidence she processed in the lab at the State Bureau of Investigation. Hinton explained that she completed an analysis on the portion of Lauterbach's femur through an extraction process to use as a standard sample for Lauterbach's DNA. She further explained that DNA can be extracted from both bone and blood samples. The standard is then used to compare other DNA samples against.

Hinton said that burning could taint a sample but in this case, she got a "profile" of Lauterbach's DNA from the bone.

She also analyzed the toothbrush found in Laurean's truck to obtain a DNA standard for Laurean. Skin cells from the toothbrush and mouth are used to create a DNA profile which she compared to the DNA provided by Laurean in the cheek swab. Hinton explained that because the DNA profiles matched and Laurean has no identical siblings the toothbrush had to be Laurean's.

She also analyzed the cheek swab from Christina Laurean and used it to create a DNA standard for her as well.

She then told the court the swab from the plastic container in the Laurean garage was compared to the profile from Lauterbach's bone and Laurean's toothbrush. The swab matched Lauterbach's DNA profile but did not match Laurean's. Hinton said the DNA "could have come from no one other than Maria Lauterbach."

Hinton said she tested the swab from the inflatable raft, comparing it to the femur bone and the toothbrush and the sample matched only Maria Lauterbach's DNA profile. Hinton compared swabs from other objects including the tan pillow, a paint roller, the peg board and the garage floor and found only one DNA profile match -- that of Maria Lauterbach. None of those samples matched Laurean.

Hinton said that the swab from a small paint brush yielded no discernible DNA. She said the sample could have been too small or potentially tainted by paint.

Hinton also analyzed a swab from the end of the crowbar, comparing it to the femur bone and toothbrush DNA profiles of Lauterbach and Laurean. She confirmed the DNA could have come from no other person than Maria Lauterbach. Hinton said Laurean's DNA did not match the profile present on the crowbar.

Hinton then told the court when she analyzed the swabbing from the middle of the crowbar she found a "mixture" of DNA present in the sample. "There is more than one person on this piece of evidence," she said. Hinton explained she compared the mixture to the standards established and she did not find Laurean's DNA present.

Multiple people could have handled the item and knocked skin cells off, she explained to the court. When she compared Mrs. Laurean's established profile to the crowbar handle she could not generate a confirmed match because multiple people had touched it. She was unable to determine whether Cesar or Mrs. Laurean had ever handled the crowbar.

Hinton then compared Samantha Ward's DNA profile from her volunteer cheek swab and concluded she could not eliminate her as a contributor to the DNA mixture on the crowbar. She found the same to be true for Samantha's husband Dennis.

During cross-examination McNeil asked Hinton about the mixture of DNA found on the crowbar and she confirmed Laurean's DNA was excluded from possible matches. She also said she was told to rush the results regarding whether Mrs. Laurean's DNA was present on the middle of the crowbar.

During redirection Hinton told the state that wearing gloves or cleaning off an object would prevent the transfer of DNA from a person to the crowbar. Hinton then stepped down from the witness stand.

The jurors then passed the crowbar amongst themselves in the jury box.

2:55 p.m.: The state calls Mary Lauterbach to the witness stand.

Mrs. Lauterbach explained Maria Lauterbach is her daughter who was adopted at 19-months-old and that her family has lived in Ohio for generations. She told District Attorney Dewey Hudson her daughter left for boot camp days after high school graduation and that she attended her daughter's graduation from Parris Island. As Mrs. Lauterbach looks at photos of her daughter she starts to become emotional.

After graduating from boot camp Lauterbach was assigned to Camp Lejuene. She came home for Thanksgiving and Christmas of that year. While at Parris Island in initial training the mother and daughter weren't allowed to talk to each other but Mrs. Lauterbach said her daughter wrote often.

Mrs. Lauterbach said Maria called her on Mother's Day and had told her she had been attacked, raped. Mrs. Lauterbach asked why she waited a month to report the incident and urged her daughter to report the incident to authorities. She saw Maria again in June because she wanted to show her family her new car, the blue Hyundai. The two were together during a week-long visit.

"That was her baby. She was very proud of it," Mrs. Lauterbach said of Maria and her car. She then positively identified the car using a photo previously admitted into evidence.

It was in June that Mrs. Lauterbach found out her daughter was pregnant. In September of 2007 her daughter returned home by plane. "She was visibly pregnant at that time," Mrs. Lauterbach said. "She had a very hard pregnancy. She was sick constantly."

"She really struggled with (whether or not to keep the baby)" she said.

In late November Maria moved in with Daniel Durham. She was not allowed to travel home for Thanksgiving because she was so close to her due date, Mrs. Lauterbach said.

On Dec. 8 Maria Lauterbach called her mom and told her about a baby shower that had been thrown for her.

"She was upset that day," Mrs. Lauterbach said. Her mom told her to seriously consider giving the baby up for adoption.

"She was upset with me and sad," she said. Mrs. Lauterbach said her daughter didn't talk to her again until Dec. 11.

"She seemed a little calmer," she said.

On Dec. 14 she spoke to her daughter for "close to half-an-hour."

She got home from work at 6 p.m. and her other daughter was on the phone with Daniel Durham. "She said 'she left this strange note with Dan Durham.'" Mrs. Lauterbach said.

After Mrs. Lauterbach heard the contents on the note "we immediately started calling her, but every time it went straight to her voicemail."

"We called it so many times. For days and days," she said. Mrs. Lauterbach told the court she has never talked to her daughter since.

Mrs. Lauterbach then positively identified her daughter in an ATM photo previously entered in to evidence. "That's my daughter. That's my daughter Maria," she said.

She told the court her daughter hated buses and had never talked of going to Mexico and did not speak Spanish.

"She absolutely refused to ride buses. She was very immobile" during her pregnancy.

Before her pregnancy her daughter was very enthusiastic, energetic and athletic, Mrs. Lauterbach told the court.

Shortly thereafter court was recessed until 3:45 p.m. while the judge and attorneys discussed whether questions about Maria's truthfulness would be permitted in the questioning of her mother.

3:45 p.m.: Court resumed with Mary Lauterbach on the witness stand for cross-examination when McNeil asked Mrs. Lauterbach about the circumstances behind her daughter's joining the Marine Corps. In the fall of 2005 her mother signed for her to join the Marines because of her young age.  McNeil asked if she did not want her daughter to join the Marine Corps. "I wanted her to think carefully about it," she said. "I was very proud of her." Mrs. Lauterbach told McNeil she did not recall telling one of Maria's officers that she thought her daughter joining was a mistake.

Mrs. Lauterbach said her daughter was not taking medication prior to entering the Marine Corps. McNeil asked if she had asked the opportunity to review any of her daughter's Marine Corps medical records and Mrs. Lauterbach said she had not viewed the records.

Mrs. Lauterbach told McNeil her daughter was never married nor divorced. McNeil asked if she remembered a three page report she filled out for authorities when her daughter went missing. She affirmed she remembered filling out the form.

McNeil then asked her if she had an opinion of Maria's truthfulness.

"My opinion is that Maria certainly told the truth but there where ocassions where she might, she would come up with the stories, but when she would it would become very apparent she was not telling the truth. IN our family we would talk about how she was a terrible liar. It was occasional, not constant.," she said.

McNeil asked if Mrs. Lauterbach remembers making contact with local law enforcement authorities when her daughter went missing. On Dec. 17 Durham gave her a number to call at Lejuene. The Marines told her they couldn't do anything so she called the police.

At no point in time did she tell authorities her daughter was a compulsive or pathological liar, she said. She told the detective her daughter had "occasional problems with compulsive lying."

McNeil asked if Mrs. Lauterbach believed Maria should give the child up for adoption. She said that as a person who struggled with infertility and have adopted her oldest two children and had a "marvelous experience" with adoption she had encouraged her to give the child up for adoption.

Initially it caused some strain between Mrs. Lauterbach and her daughter, but as the baby grew and she felt the child moving she said she was beginning to "second-guess" herself. "We were looking forward to talking about it face-to-face," Mrs. Lauterbach said.

McNeil asked Mrs. Lauterbach if she ever told her mother she intended to leave the Marine Corps or leave the Jacksonville area. Mrs. Lauterbach said she didn't have any conversations with her daughter regarding this.

McNeil asked if Maria told her mother if she was seeing the person she alleged sexually assaulted her. Mrs. Lauterbach said no.

McNeil asked if she and Maria were close in her opinion. Mrs. Lauterbach said she felt they were close.

He also asked if she had discussed her finances with her mom.

"She didn't discuss the money thing. She made things look rosy." She told McNeil she had a conversation with Daniel Durham regarding Maria being behind on the rent.

Mrs. Lauterbach said her daughter's mood seemed improved on Dec. 14.

McNeil asked if Maria ever told her who the father of the child was. Mrs. Lauterbach said, "Not by name." Mrs. Lauterbach confirmed that her daughter said the father was the alleged attacker.

Mrs. Lauterbach said that Maria told her mother on Dec. 14 that she was supposed to attend a Christmas party but did not want to go because her accused attacker would be present and she couldn't stand being around him. Mrs. Lauterbach then stepped down from the witness stand.

The jury was then excused from the proceeding. The judge then explained he was excluding the recorders and videos from the remainder of the days court proceedings because the defense wants numerous questions objected during cross-examination on the record.

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