Press-Republican

May 7, 2013

Forensic investigators testify in Denno trial

By KIM SMITH DEDAM Press-Republican
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Steel-toed boots and a pair of sneakers were entered as evidence in Scott E. Denno’s manslaughter trial here on Monday.

Denno stands accused in the death of Robert Rennie, who died of internal bleeding and severe blunt-force trauma following a beating that the prosecution says was conducted not only by fists but shod feet.

On Aug. 26, 2012, Rennie’s body was found lying near the closed iron bridge in Keeseville, on River Street, a village road that connects to Mill Hill beside the Ausable River.

Denno is charged with second-degree manslaughter, gang assault and weapon possession in connection with the death.

Sneakers owned by Michael Rivers and Chippewa boots owned by Paul J. Taylor were added to the evidence list during testimony on Monday. Those two men are also accused in the death of Rennie.

Denno’s boots had already been placed in evidence during the trial last week.

CLOTHING TESTED

Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague called several forensic investigators to the stand in County Court on Monday.

The collection of blood samples, the footwear and clothing spanned several scenes connected to the Aug. 26 discovery of Rennie’s body.

Swabs of what forensic investigators believed was blood were taken from the boots, from several points on Mill Hill Road, from a parking lot nearby and from clothing worn by Rivers and Taylor.

A pair of Calvin Klein jeans taken from the master bedroom at Rivers’s mobile home was presented in court, along with a white, polo-type shirt that the prosecution says, via witness testimony, belonged to Taylor.

It was the shirt that Taylor’s former girlfriend, Samantha LaCroix, said he was wearing the night he was at her apartment drinking with Rennie. It was that night, prosecutors say, that the gang assault took place that resulted in Rennie’s death.

Both clothing items had holes where forensic scientists had cut out some of the fabric in order to test swatches for DNA.

‘NO BROKEN BOTTLE’

State Police Senior Investigator Allan Wright described how evidence was collected by his team over several days and at different locations.

The crime scene allegedly stretched from the Front Street apartment rented by LaCroix, who was also Rennie’s former girlfriend; along Front Street, where testimony places Rivers and Denno at a first confrontation with Rennie, where they engaged in a fistfight; and then down Mill Hill Road, where, a witness said, the two men dragged Rennie to an area near a parking lot close to the bottom of the hill and where Taylor joined them in beating Rennie.

His body was found not far from that location near the barricade on the iron bridge.

Wright said the investigators first searched the area around where Rennie was found.

“Anything we found that was out of place, we secured,” he told Sprague.

Wright said they did not find a beer bottle or any broken bottle along Front Street, which is where Denno had told police Rennie had dropped one.

They did find an empty plastic Canadian Ltd. whiskey bottle and secured that item, Wright said.

GENETIC PROFILE

Sprague and Assistant District Attorney Michael Langey called New York State Police forensic scientist Brian Murphy to the stand on Monday afternoon.

Murphy said he was able to establish genetic profiles for Denno, Rivers and Taylor taken from cans of Mountain Dew and a water bottle the men drank from during the police questioning session at State Police barracks in Plattsburgh.

Murphy said that swabs from the Michelin boots owned by Denno, from Rivers’s sneakers and from the Chippewa boots owned by Taylor were all positive for Rennie’s DNA, with a statistical match close to 1 in 250 billion.

The prosecution presented a series of about six over-sized charts showing how items tested were linked to Rennie’s blood.

On two locations of Denno’s boots, Murphy said, the swabs were a direct match from Rennie’s DNA profile.

But Denno’s defense attorney, Joe Brennan, challenged Murphy, suggesting the scientist had not swabbed the samples himself.

Murphy had written a 21-page report on his genetic findings, but the actual blood residue was swabbed from the items by a serologist in the lab.

“There isn’t anything in the report,” Brennan said, “to show where precisely these samples were taken from.”

SAMPLE SITES

The defense took particular issue with the description of the location “inside,” which could mean the interior of the boot and or the arch instep “inside” the foot.

“It doesn’t mean inside the boot,” Langey clarified with Murphy in a followup question.

Taking Denno’s left Michelin boot, Murphy pointed to areas circled near the heel and the instep, explaining that those marks indicate where the lab found and swabbed for blood evidence.

CRIES FOR HELP

Before testimony closed on Monday, Sprague called Paige Baker to testify about hearing fighting that night last August.

The young mother of three has a second-floor apartment across the Ausable River, with a balcony that overlooks the iron bridge crossing.

Baker said she was outside on the balcony smoking a cigarette in the early morning on Aug. 26 when she overheard men’s voices yelling and swearing loudly.

“One of them said, ‘I’m going to f’ing get you,” she told the court and then described how the voices got louder and seemed to come closer to the river.

“Then I heard someone say: ‘Help me, someone, please help me, anyone,’” Baker said.

She said the yelling had continued for 15 or 20 minutes.

“Did you call police?” Sprague asked.

“No,” Baker answered.

She said she had watched to see if anyone had come across the bridge into view below her apartment but no one did.

And she said she heard two loud bangs, as if something had hit off the metal bridge.

Testimony resumes Tuesday morning, when prosecution plans to bring in the forensic serologist to describe areas where blood samples were swabbed from articles of clothing and boots in evidence. 

Email Kim Smith Dedam: kdedam@pressrepublican.com