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Tuesday, July 3, 2007

No blood samples, no conviction in Weaver case

Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner told me she had had better days than today.

Gordon Weaver jumped bail and spent four years as a fugitive after he was arrested in connection with his wife's death. When he was finally tried, he claimed his wife had died after falling down and striking her head during an argument. He admitted setting their house on fire to cover the death. Prosecutors maintained that she had died from carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of the fire. Weaver was convicted of second-degree unintentional felony murder. Today, the Court of Appeals reversed that conviction.

Regions Hospital had destroyed the blood samples and test data that showed whether the wife had carbon monoxide in her body when she died. (The identity of the lab technician was unknown by the time the case was tried.) The appellate court said that the defendant's Confrontation Clause rights were violated by allowing the medical examiner to testify about the lab-test results. The defendant never had a chance to cross-examine the lab technician, the court said.

"The most disturbing part of the opinion is that it rewards defendants for absconding," Gaertner said. "The bottom line is that it pays to go on the lam and that is very bad public policy."
What's bad public policy is destroying evidence, responded defense attorney Joseph Friedberg.

"If the Ramsey County medical examiner had sent the blood sample to a forensic laboratory this problem wouldn't have existed. [Such a laboratory would have retained] the blood results until a case is decided. It's kind of strange that [Region's] destroyed the evidence." Friedberg pointed out that the appropriate forensic laboratories are set forth in a statute.

He also said that the case is full of evidentiary errors and he hopes for a judge who understands the rules on retrial. Those errors may be addressed by the Supreme Court when and if it takes the county's petition for review, said Friedberg.

When and if Weaver is retried, he can only be charged with second-degree unintentional felony murder but Friedberg isn't anticipating any plea negotiating on this one.

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