Vt. Supreme Court hears murder appeal

Thursday March 18, 2010

SOUTH ROYALTON (AP) -- A man convicted in the rape and murder of a University of Vermont student took his case to the state’s highest court Wednesday, his lawyer arguing that DNA analysis that helped convict him was suspect and that he deserves a new trial.

In an appeal hearing before the Vermont Supreme Court, Deputy Public Defender Anna Saxman told justices that prosecutors didn’t give Brian Rooney’s defense attorney internal validation studies that the Vermont Forensic Laboratory conducted to test its own reliability in analyzing tiny samples of DNA, like the one at issue in the case.

But Assistant Attorney General David Tartter said defense attorney David Sleigh didn’t request the studies before Rooney’s 2008 trial and that their findings wouldn’t necessarily have buttressed his case anyway.

The justices, in their annual session at Vermont Law School, didn’t immediately rule on the appeal.

Rooney, 39, is serving life in prison for the 2006 killing of Michelle Gardner-Quinn.

The 21-year-old senior from Arlington, Va., who had just transferred to UVM, disappeared Oct. 7, 2006 while her parents were visiting Burlington for parents’ weekend.

A week later, a hiker found her half-dressed body stuffed into a crevice at Huntington Gorge, about 20 miles away in Richmond. She had been sexually assaulted, beaten and strangled.

Rooney, a stranger who lent her his cell phone in a chance late-night encounter on a Burlington street, was the last person seen with Gardner-Quinn.

But he denied harming her. He was charged 12 days later after DNA in semen found on her body matched his DNA, authorities said.

The DNA evidence was the linchpin of the state’s case at trial. Police found no witnesses to the killing, no murder weapon and no trace evidence on Rooney’s clothing or car.

"Their entire case is predicated upon two-tenths of a nanogram in a suspect source of DNA," Sleigh told jurors at the 2008 trial.

Saxman contends that prosecutors failed to provide the internal validation studies in a bid to hamper Rooney’s defense.

Only "some" of the results of the validation studies backed up the state’s claim that the laboratory could reliably analyze the .24 nanogram sample it had to worth with, Saxman said.

Tartter said the validity of the state’s lab work didn’t hinge on whether it was a big sample or a small one, and that it was the defense’s responsibility to ask for the validation studies, not the prosecution’s obligation to provide them.

In order to prove a violation of the Brady rule -- which requires prosecutors to share evidence both favorable and unfavorable to defendants -- it must be shown that exculpatory evidence was suppressed and that it prejudiced the defense’s case, he said.

Neither of those things are true in the Rooney case, he said.

Justices questioned the two lawyers about the issue during the 30-minute hearing, with dozens of law students, professors and others looking on.

Among the people in the gallery: State Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Tremblay, who was chief of police in Burlington at the time.

"Just seeing the case through," he said afterward. "We’ll let the Supreme Court make the decision."


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