Rooney trial coming to a close

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(HOST) The trial of Brian Rooney who’s charged with the 2006 rape and murder of Michelle Gardner Quinn is nearing its conclusion in Vermont District Court in Rutland.

Key evidence includes a DNA sample and video footage of the two walking together late the night she disappeared.

Because there are no witnesses, evidence in the case is critical to the outcome.

VPR’s Nina Keck has more.

(Keck) Evidence in the Brian Rooney case has come in many forms. There was a gray wool coat with a missing toggle and torn seams. It was the coat Michelle Gardner Quinn was wearing the night she disappeared. There were cell phone records, maps, police reports and lab tests. There was the video tape captured by a Burlington jewelry store, and there were photographs. For forty minutes, the courtroom was darkened as Vermont State Medical Examiner Steven Shapiro described autopsy photos.

(Shapiro) "This is a picture of Michelle again. This is how she was first seen in our office."

(Keck) While this sort of evidence is difficult to watch – Cheryl Hannah a professor of Law at Vermont law school, says because the defendant is charged with aggravated murder, showing how Michelle Gardner Quinn died is important.

(Hannah) "She has to have been killed in the course of rape essentially so the autopsy photos prove the manner of her death so the prosecution has to introduce those. Although it does create some sort of emotional response a little bit of a shocking effect, it’s absolutely legally imperative that those photographs come in otherwise you have no way to prove the manner that she died."

(Keck) Then there’s all the scientific reports, police and lab documents, expert testimony and DNA results. While many believe the DNA evidence to be the most damaging for Rooney, defense attorneys say that science has its limits. Rutland defense attorney Matt Harnett is not involved in the Rooney case but has tried a number of criminal cases involving DNA evidence.

(Harnett) "DNA can only tell you one thing – whether or not someone’s biological material is in a particular place – it doesn’t’ tell you anything about the circumstances of how it got there. It doesn’t tell you when it got there. Sometimes people place evidence – or make a mistake and taint the evidence."

(Keck) Legal experts say that’s why prosecutors spend so much time establishing a reliable chain of evidence. Here’s Assistant Attorney General Matt Levine asking Wendy Alger about how she collects and analyzes body fluids at the Vermont Forensic Lab.

(Levine) "Now when you work with evidence, do you document the work you do in some way? (Alger) Yes we do. We have evidence submission form, which keeps track of the evidence and we sign over on it when we start to work on it. We have hand written work sheets, we have computerized worksheets we take photographs, diagrams and drawings so we keep all those documents."

(Keck) In the Rooney case, jurors have listened to hours of similar questioning about how evidence is handled. They’ve also heard defense attorney David Sleigh bring up past errors labs have made with samples and evidence. Again, Cheryl Hannah.

(Hannah) "You haven’t heard David Sleigh say you’ve got the wrong guy. We didn’t hear questioning of the police whether there were other suspects they should have pursued. The whole strategy here is there is just not enough evidence to convict my guy."

(Keck) Evidence is key in this case and Hannah says one of the most interesting things she’s noticed is how it’s been presented to jurors.

(Hannah) "We do have sort of a greater theatrical nature to evidence than we had 25 years ago when we didn’t have the availability of things like power point and the ability to project digital photographs".

(Keck) With greater theatrics and the popularity of television crime shows some legal experts say jurors today have unrealistic expectations of the kind of evidence they’ll see. And they say that’s made things more difficult. Still, in the end, it will be the seven women and five men of the jury that must take the evidence back with them to the jury room and decide what’s important and what’s not.

For VPR news, I’m Nina Keck in Rutland.

Host: Closing arguments in the Rooney trial are scheduled for Thursday.

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