The case of a Sterling woman accused of sexually assaulting a minor will go to trial starting Tuesday.
Laurel Lee, 52, was charged with first-degree sexual assault, kidnapping and second-degree sexual abuse of a minor on Oct. 1, 2014. Alaska State Troopers alleged that she pulled a then-14-year-old boy off his bicycle near mile 80 of the Sterling Highway, took him into the woods and sexually assaulted him.
Kenai Superior Court Judge Carl Bauman ruled at a Monday evidentiary hearing that the case will not be dismissed, nor will the state’s DNA test result evidence be suppressed, as had been requested in a motion made by Lee’s defense attorney, Dina Cale.
Cale argued in the motion that when the Alaska State Crime Lab used the material from all six swabs from the alleged victim to get a DNA profile, it violated Lee’s right to due process by making it impossible for the samples to be further tested for the presence of saliva. Cale said this test would have been important as part of her defense will be that Lee was sexually assaulted by the alleged victim, not the other way around.
After listening to testimony from Sara Graziano, a forensic scientist from the crime lab, Bauman found the defense hadn’t convinced him the case should be dismissed or the evidence suppressed.
“I don’t see that the state crime lab person violated standard operating procedures,” he said.
Cale had argued the swab materials had been unnecessarily exhausted, and that Graziano could have spared some that could have been used for testing other than to get a DNA profile, like testing for saliva. Graziano explained that, in her line of work, getting an accurate DNA profile is considered of the most value, so her use of all the useful swab material was a call made based on wanting to get a DNA profile that would be useful in the case.
Graziano added that because she preserved DNA extract that could be used by a different lab to verify her results, there was technically still biological DNA available, so not everything in the sample had been used up.
The issue of saliva testing itself was also brought up. Graziano testified that the reason the Alaska State Crime Lab does not automatically run tests for the presence of saliva is that no tests exist that are able to confirm that.
What is tested for to find saliva, an enzyme called amylase, is also found in things like breast milk or vaginal fluid. If a saliva test came back positive, there would be no way to say for sure whether the sample came from saliva or from another source that contains amylase, Graziano testified.
Cale maintained that the test would have been helpful to her in case it had come back negative, which she said would have ruled out saliva and went against the allegation that Lee forced oral sex on the minor. Lee’s defense has had the pants she was wearing that night tested, which Cale said showed the presence of semen. The minor could not be excluded as a source of the semen during testing, Cale said.
Assistant District Attorney Kelly Lawson said told the court that Lee did not claim to have been a victim until Oct. 2, 2014, a few days after the alleged incident. She also never made an official statement as to being a victim, she said.
Lawson said while procedures and guidelines for handling evidence at the crime lab do emphasize erring on the side of caution and saving materials where possible, they also emphasize maximizing evidence for accurate results.
“We can appreciate the defense would like more evidence … but we’re also talking about a non-confirmatory test,” Lawson told the court.
Bauman made no final ruling on whether to give the jury in this case a Thorne instruction, or an instruction that, had Lee’s defense been able to independently test the DNA swabs for saliva, that information would have been helpful to the defense.
Lee’s trial will start Tuesday with jury selection.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.