Prosecutor paints chilling picture

Posted: Sunday, September 19, 2004

Jurors were shown graphic photos of an assault victim and heard a bone-chilling tape recording of a 911 call for help, as the trial of the 23-year-old man charged with the attack got under way in Kenai Superior Court on Friday.

Justin Starkweather, who lived across the street from the victim, is charged with attempting to murder the 46-year-old Soldotna woman in her home near West Poppy Lane in February 2002.

Starkweather's attorney, Cynthia Strout, told jurors during her opening statement that investigators rushed to accuse her client and by doing so, ignored evidence that suggested others committed the horrific attack.

"The state has charged the wrong man. My client did not commit this crime," Strout said.

In Kenai District Attorney June Stein's opening statement, she told jurors they would hear testimony from witnesses that nearly all the bones in the victim's face were broken, the lower portion of her face was separated and that she was sexually assaulted.

Stein said the jury would hear that a friend of the victim's came over to do his wash at her house and found the victim lying on the floor with a chest of drawers on top of her.

"(The victim) can't talk. She's lying in a pool of blood. She's been there for hours," Stein said.

"(The friend) calls the police.

"Police come. Officers take a picture and the paramedics come and scoop her up and take her to the hospital.

"Then she's life-flighted to Anchorage," Stein said.

Stein told the jurors of the ensuing investigation during which she said officers found bloody footprints in the victim's house that actually showed the brand of the shoe, and that the prints led across the street to Starkweather's house.

"The officers get a search warrant. Justin Starkweather is very upset," Stein said.

She also said investigators found a couple of bags without snow on them in a pickup parked in the driveway at Starkweather's house. Other bags were covered with snow.

In the bags without the snow, investigators found items of Starkweather's clothing, in-cluding a shoe with the victim's blood.

They also found shorts with the victim's blood in the garage and found a second set of shoes with the victim's blood in the crawl space beneath his house, she said.

"Justin Starkweather is getting more and more upset," Stein said.

"They find a jewelry box of (the victim's) under his bed with a lot of (her) keepsakes. Her father's medals. Porcupine quills she likes to collect," Stein said.

She also told jurors the victim was examined by a sexual assault response team nurse who collected a DNA sample from her.

She said the crime lab found the sample contained a mix of the DNA of the victim and of Starkweather.

Stein told the jurors the defense would try to tell them that a friend of Starkweather, Melissa Larsen, and a friend of hers, Fred Bar, were involved in the crime, not Starkweather.

"I will ask you to find him guilty," she said.

Strout responded, in her opening statement, by telling the jury the state might be counting on the horror of the attack to get a conviction.

"The physical evidence does not support the state's theory," Strout said.

"When the evidence is missing, the state's case falls apart.

"The investigation stopped one hour after it began when the officers decided Justin Starkweather was guilty, an error fatal to solving this case," she said.

Strout said she would be calling an expert witness a retired FBI investigator who would explain what the crime scene suggests and tell them that a major problem with the investigation occurred when the officers jumped to the early conclusion that her client was guilty.

"Justin became an easy suspect because of his footprints in the neighborhood, even though Justin told the investigators that Melissa gave him the jewelry box and borrowed his shoes," she said.

"Because they ignored those statements, they dismissed the other suspects."

Strout said the investigators found two sets of footprints, one made by a person wearing Nike shoes and the other by someone wearing heavy lug boots.

"Why two sets? Most likely because there were two people," she said.

"The boots the investigators pulled out from the crawl space had no blood at all.

"It is not possible that those boots made those footprints.

"Where are the boots that did?" she asked.

Strout then told the jurors that someone left the victim's house wearing bloody boots.

"Justin was the easy solution to this crime," she said.

Strout also cautioned the jurors to be careful when listening to planned testimony about DNA evidence.

"I think Miss Stein misstated that the DNA 'matched' Justin Starkweather's.

"It matched the DNA of one in 9,000 Caucasian males among all the millions of Caucasian males in the world," she said.

"Listen carefully to the DNA evidence."

Strout told the jurors that investigators ignored all evidence that suggest Larsen and Bar were involved.

"My client did not commit this crime. You must find him not guilty," she said.

After opening statements, the state began calling witnesses, the first being the victim's friend who discovered her after the attack and called 911.

The defendant looked down at the defense table as Stein showed photos of the crime scene and the victim to the witness, John Perna, and to the jury.

Perna, who is now married to the victim, described his shock as he arrived at the victim's house and began realizing that something was wrong.

First, he noticed a piece of wooden molding broken away from the doorway leading from the laundry room to the garage.

Then he found the victim's car in the garage, though she was supposedly out doing errands.

He searched the house, calling her name, and then found her lying on her back on the floor of her bedroom.

"It looked like a bomb went off," Perna said.

"There was stuff everywhere, destroyed.

"I saw her leg move. It was sticking out from under the dresser.

"I saw her head covered in blood, dry and dark. It was almost unrecognizable, swollen round, and her left eye was filled with red blood. She was still actively bleeding," he said.

"I threw the dresser off her. She was alive. She was breathing."

Perna then recalled his actions as he ran to the kitchen for the cordless phone and dialed 911, hurrying to get back to his friend's side.

Stein played a recording of the 911 call during which he is heard saying, "Oh my God. She's bleeding. It looks like she's been raped."

During the call he is heard repeatedly urging his friend to hang on, to keep breathing.

"I love you, baby," he says over and over.

"Help is coming ... help is coming," he says as the tape ends.

The trial is scheduled to resume Monday morning in Judge Charles Cranston's courtroom.

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