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Murder trial shifts to woman's body found in Elkridge backyard

Forensics experts say identification of body a 'tried and true' science

By Justin Fenton and Alison Matas, The Baltimore Sun

6:12 PM EDT, April 14, 2013

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When Howard County authorities said they found the badly decomposed remains of Christine Jarrett beneath a shed in her own backyard, they moved swiftly to charge her husband — long a suspect — with the murder.

That discovery — two decades after her disappearance — is expected to become the focus of Robert Jarrett Jr.'s first-degree murder trial as it enters its second week. Though the body proved to be the tipping point for investigators in the field, it has also become a target for Jarrett's lawyers, who say it doesn't prove their client is guilty.

The potential challenges for prosecutors increase as time passes between murder and trial, experts say, and can provide openings for opposing counsel to try to sow doubts about a case.

Defense attorneys said in opening arguments that they plan to question the medical examiner's inability to determine a cause of death. They also hope to raise doubts about whether the body is in fact that of Christine Jarrett.

John Tobin, coordinator of the forensic science program at Stevenson University, said pieces of evidence can change over time, and witnesses might forget facts of the case.

Tobin, who is not involved with the Jarrett trial, said the body is circumstantial evidence, enough of which can mount up to establish guilt. Tobin likened such evidence to "pieces of a puzzle that you're putting together, and no single piece by itself can make a picture."

Among the anticipated exhibits this week is the giant slab of concrete found over the body, which is so big it had to be transported in an ambulance and is being stored in a holding cell in the courthouse.

Police had suspected Jarrett in the disappearance of his wife, who he said had left their Elkridge home after an argument in January 1991. He remarried and continued to live in the home, and Christine was eventually declared legally dead. When he left his second wife for another woman, detectives asked if they could search the property and found the body under concrete in a backyard shed.

The first week of testimony focused on the Jarretts' troubled marriage, including three accounts of physical abuse, which Jarrett acknowledged in his early conversations with police. In the days after her disappearance, Jarrett appeared concerned, and as time went by grew emotional, according to Thomas O'Connor, a retired officer who made two visits to the home in the first three days.

"He hadn't heard from her, and he said she would've at least called to speak to her boys," O'Connor testified Friday, recalling one of their conversations.

Less than two weeks after the remains were found in April 2012, and after an autopsy had been completed, the remains were released by the state medical examiner, and her sons had them cremated. At a motions hearing in December, defense attorney George Psoras said he would have wanted to conduct independent tests such as a DNA test to confirm it was Christine Jarrett and to try to determine a cause of death.

Circuit Court Judge Richard S. Bernhardt said at that hearing it was "shocking" that investigators hadn't performed a DNA test on the body, but added that will be "part of the state's burden" in proving the case to a jury.

Mark Profili, director of the forensic science program at Towson University, called the defense claim a "good defense argument, because they can't retest what isn't there anymore." But he also called the identification of remains "a tried and true science." Profili is not involved with the case.

He said the next step for the defense would be to review the dental records report and assess the credibility of the person who made the identification based on other cases where he or she has identified bodies using dental records.

Tobin, who also spent 37 years with the Maryland State Police, said that while DNA could be recovered, the best bet is to use dental records.

"If it's a match, then you've got an identity," he said.

James M. Adcock, a Georgia-based forensic consultant who specializes in cold cases and homicides, said it's the job of a good defense attorney to find something about the investigation process to dispute and that no identification method is always right.

But he also said there should be enough photos and documentation of the remains that it doesn't make a difference that the body was cremated. Adcock is also not involved with the case.

A necklace and a ring were found buried with the body, along with clothing and photos of Christine Jarrett's children and relatives from her side of the family. When relatives of Christine Jarrett identified the objects as hers at trial, Psoras questioned how they could be sure after so many years.

Psoras has raised several theories at various court hearings — he said the body could be that of another person and already been in the yard when the Jarretts moved in, or that Jarrett could have killed someone else and buried the person in the backyard.

At trial, he suggested to jurors that a man with whom Christine was having an affair had more of a motive to kill her than her estranged husband. But broadly, he said defense attorneys simply can't prove that Jarrett killed his wife.

Assistant State's Attorney Jim Diedrich told jurors that Jarrett was "living a lie" that came crashing down when the body was found.

"It's taken 22 years to reach the point it's at now," Diedrich said in opening arguments. "It's time to put Christine Jarrett to rest, to put an end to the defendant's lies and deceit."

jfenton@baltsun.com


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