There were no witnesses to the 2001 murder of a homeless man in Las Vegas, not even a single blowfly.
Yet it was precisely the absence of blowflies that would ultimately exonerate the woman who was wrongfully convicted of his murder.
But it would take nearly 17 years in prison before she was cleared thanks to the work of several agencies and a Simon Fraser University expert in how the tiny insects “colonize” a corpse.
Gail Anderson, a criminology professor at SFU and entomologist, has known since 2009 that the woman, Kirstin Blaise Lobato, did not commit the crime. But it would take nearly a decade for the justice system to catch up.
On Tuesday, Anderson will talk about her role as a forensic entomologist in the Lobato case at the SFU Centre for Forensic Research’s annual symposium, which is open to the public.
Just 18 years old at the time, Lobato was accused of stabbing Duncan Bailey to death in 2001.
His body was found under some trash behind a dumpster around 10 p.m. The medical examiner initially estimated the time of death an hour or two before the body was found. But he later changed his opinion to 24 hours before the body was discovered, with no explanation.
No witnesses or evidence connected Lobato to the murder.
Las Vegas detectives followed up on a rumour that she had similarly slashed an attacker when she was sexually assaulted a month before. They arrested her, despite no motive to kill Bailey and a solid alibi from several witnesses placing her at her parents’ home that night, an almost three-hour drive from the murder scene.
At trial, the state prosecutor relied heavily on the medical examiner’s estimated time of death to undermine her alibi, and argued that Lobato had enough time to stab Bailey and then drive three hours to her parents’ home.
She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
A month before the homeless man was murdered, Lobato had been attacked and nearly raped in a hotel parking lot by a different person and had used a knife to defend herself. Her attacker had minor injuries, but when homicide investigators showed up at her home, she thought he must have died.
So she expressed remorse, and made other comments that the detective took as a confession for Bailey’s murder, according to the Innocence Project, which helped secure a third retrial for Lobato.
Kirstin Blaise Lobato was just 18 years old when she was wrongfully convicted of murder. She spent nearly 17 years in prison before she was exonerated.
The Innocence Project usually helps clear people who are wrongfully convicted using DNA evidence. But in Lobato’s case, Anderson’s knowledge of how and when blowflies colonize a corpse with their eggs was key to proving the murder occurred at a time when Lobato had an alibi.
During a second trial in 2006, the medical examiner again changed his opinion, saying the victim died eight to 14 hours before discovery. Lobato was again found guilty and convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
At no time during either trial did did they call on a forensic entomologist to clarify why there was no insect colonization on the body, which would have established the time of death, said Anderson.
In 2009, Anderson got a call from Hans Sherrer, publisher of the magazine Justice Denied, to ask if she could help exonerate Lobato using forensic entomology. When he told her that no insects had been found on the body, and that the murder was alleged to have occurred up to 24 hours before discovery, she knew that something was wrong.
“He explained the scenario to me and I said, ‘Wait a minute. That doesn’t make any sense.’ There was a very bloody body in an area of the world where the climate is optimum for insect colonization. In that situation, blowflies would have laid eggs immediately,” said Anderson.
“These things are not microscopic. They are two millimetres long. The are laid in big clumps that look like parmesan … and in this case there were none in any of the photographs.”
Blowflies are always the first insects to colonize a corpse, she added, typically within minutes.
But they don’t fly after dark.
She said there are many reasons why blowflies might not have laid eggs, such as freezing weather or if the body had been tightly wrapped up. She said they went through every scenario.
“But the only scenario here for finding no insects on the body was that he died after dark.”
She sent an affidavit to Sherrer, who petitioned the court. There was a hearing in 2011, but the evidence was dismissed.
Anderson admits it was frustrating having the court dismiss a strong case.
“There were no insects on the body. So I guess they didn’t think about it. What they should have done is thought, ‘Why aren’t there any insects and does that mean something?’”
In early 2017, the Innocence Project, now involved in the case, contacted Anderson, who suggested they find local entomologists to testify to corroborate her affidavit.
On Dec. 19, 2017, Nevada District Court judge Stefany Miley heard testimony supporting an 8 p.m. time of death from Anderson, two American forensic entomologists, and a forensic pathologist.
“All of us basically said the exactly the same thing in different words,” said Anderson. “That was very convincing.”
Ruling that Lobato’s lawyers were ineffective and had failed to present forensic evidence, the judge ordered a new trial.
But 10 days later, the prosecution instead vacated the case with prejudice, a move that exonerated Lobato and permanently dismissed the case.
“This was a very unusual case,” said Anderson. “It is very satisfying to know that your science has had a direct impact on this sort of thing. … This is the first of this kind for me and I don’t expect it to come up that often.”
Lobato was released from jail on Jan. 2.
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