More Fake Evidence? Convicted Omaha murderer claims CSI planted evidence
By Bill Kelly , Senior Producer/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
Jan. 14, 2014, 6:30 a.m. ·
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Blood discovered in the trunk of a car, a pair of hedge clippers and a shovel helped put Christopher Edwards in prison for a gruesome murder. Seven years later that same evidence is being questioned in an attempt to get the convicted murderer a new trial. Information about evidence called into question appears in recently filed court documents.
Edwards is scheduled to return to Douglas County District Court in March, when he will ask Judge Russell Derr to set aside his conviction.
Jerry Soucie, one of the attorneys working for Edwards, told NET News “no one should be tried on a charge as serious as murder with evidence that is not reliable and more importantly that might have been developed as a result of misconduct on the part of law enforcement.”
In 2007 Edwards was convicted of murdering his teenaged girlfriend, Jessica O’Grady. Her body has never been found. Prosecutors successfully used a wide array of forensic science to indicate O’Grady had been hacked to death in Edwards’ bedroom with an ornamental sword. Authorities speculated he used his car to move the body to another location.
Since the original guilty verdict, David Kofoed, the lead crime scene investigator, was convicted of tampering with evidence collected in another homicide investigation.
In their motion to Judge Derr, Edwards’s attorneys argue the original verdict needs to be set aside since Kofoed was “in a position to fabricate evidence under his own name” as well as being able to “set up” other crime scene investigators “to ’find’ evidence that didn’t exist until after Kofoed planted blood on the item in the bio-hazard or property room.” The court papers claim Kofoed, as commander of the CSI unit, could alter evidence “without any direct trail of evidence” linking him to “a miraculous discovery” benefiting the case.
Soucie told NET News, “We have concerns, given the way that evidence was handled, whether the blood reportedly found on a number of items actually existed on those items before they went to the Douglas County CSI office.”
The Edwards crime scene (Douglas Co. Sheriff)
Edwards requests “post-conviction relief” on the grounds the jury in the original trial “was not given the opportunity to assess whether the forensic evidence was fabricated.
(Read the motion filed in District Court here.)
His appeal found new life in 2010 after a Cass County District Court convicted and jailed Kofoed for planting evidence in an unrelated homicide case in Murdock, Neb. Wayne and Sharmon Stock were killed with a shotgun during a botched robbery of their home.
Investigators from Cass County and the Nebraska State Patrol succeeded in getting Matt Livers, a distant relative of the Stocks, to falsely confess and implicate a second man, Nick Sampson. It was later determined the confession was coerced and the lie detector test had been improperly done.
The Douglas County CSI unit processed the crime scene at the request of Cass County officials. With Livers and Sampson in jail, Kofoed claimed to have found a small trace of blood in a vehicle owned by Sampson’s brother. The case fell apart when other evidence lead to the arrest and conviction of the real killers, a pair of teenagers from Wisconsin.
Later, a special prosecutor investigated how the victim’s blood ended up in a car unrelated to the case, leading to Kofoed’s conviction for evidence tampering. He has since served his jail time and was released on probation.
Edwards’ legal team will argue in court revelations arising from the unrelated Murdock case must be considered when reviewing the evidence in the O’Grady murders. The Murdock and Edwards investigations were going on simultaneously in 2006.
“If any member of the defense team employed by the government takes action which taints a trial with false or manufactured evidence it taints the whole trial,” Soucie said. “The jury hasn’t gotten to hear the whole story.”
Small amounts of blood claimed to have been discovered in the trunk of Edwards’ car raise the most vexing questions, according the court filings.
Days into the investigation, Kofoed ordered a second inspection of the Honda’s trunk and a second round of chemical tests for human blood on items removed from the Honda.
Sheriff's Dept. evidence photo showing Kofoed in the trunk of Edwards' car. (Douglas Co. Sheriff)
An evidence photo presented at the original murder trial shows Kofoed lying on his back in the trunk taking the photos. During an interview for an NET News documentary in 2007, he recalled locating the blood. While examining a rubber gasket along the edge of the trunk he claims he spotted “a darker stain. It could have been grease. We didn’t know what it was, we did a field test and it came back presumptive for blood.” Kofoed also ordered second tests on a shovel and hedge clippers and previously undiscovered blood was found on those items as well. The items were hand delivered by Kofoed to the University of Nebraska Medical Center DNA laboratory. It was a perfect match to O’Grady’s DNA.
The evidence was essential to the prosecution theory that the teenager’s body had been removed from the scene in Edwards’ car. (READ the original crime scene report filed by the Douglas County Sheriffs' CSI Team)
To Edwards’ legal team, discovery of another blood smear in a difficult-to-reach spot in a vehicle seems suspiciously similar to the tainted Murdock investigation.
“Our allegation is that there are facts that point to a similar pattern, a similar type of conduct, that calls into question the reliability of certain evidence that was discovered,” Soucie said.
In a 2011 interview with NET News following his conviction, Kofoed specifically denied planting any evidence and specifically the blood in the trunk. He said he welcomed a new court hearing where he could “lay this stuff out.”
Edwards also argues his legal counsel in the original murder trial, Steve Lefler, had a conflict of interest because of the attorney’s personal friendship with Kofoed. Lefler became the CSI’s defense attorney in the Murdock evidence tampering case while still representing Edwards in his appeal process.
Soucie said “the arrangement was really unusual. I’d say that’s an understatement.”
The motion filed on Edwards’ behalf claims Lefler’s questioning of the CSI personnel during the original murder trial “was noteworthy in failing to challenge ANY of the procedures regarding the collection and testing of blood from the Honda automobile, the hedge shears, shovel” and other evidence collected. (Emphasis from original document).
The original poster seeking clues in O'Grady's disappearance. (NET News)
Both the Douglas County Attorney and Nebraska’s Office of the Attorney General challenged Edwards’ accusations before the Nebraska Supreme Court when attempting to block Edwards’ motion for a new hearing. They argued nothing about the points raised by Edwards justify rejecting the original verdict of second-degree murder. Neither office would comment directly when asked about the allegations raised in the latest court filings.
Privately, law enforcement officials express frustration Edwards might get a new trial based on Kofoed’s misconduct in an unrelated case, since so much evidence seemed to point to O’Grady’s violent death in Edwards' bedroom.
The evidentiary hearing scheduled in March will not directly address the question of whether Edwards is guilty or innocent of murder. “It’s based on a violation of the United States Constitution,” said Brian Munnelly, another member of Edwards’ defense team. “The statute allows you to raise an allegation that a person’s constitutional rights have been violated.”
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