Thurber Trial: Day 6 Ends With Graphic Autopsy Evidence

By: Cayle Thompson Email
By: Cayle Thompson Email

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Tuesday, Feb. 10 - 3:30pm

In the final full day of testimony, prosecutors showed jurors graphic photos detailing how 19-year-old Jodi Sanderholm was savagely beaten, strangled and raped before she died in January 2007.

Her accused killer, Justin Thurber, watched from his seat at the front of the courtroom with little reaction.

Forensic scientists from as far away as Pennsylvania testified. Dr. Terry Melton, a DNA expert, said a single strand of hair found in Sanderholm's submerged car provided enough evidence to link Thurber to the crime.

Melton said less than one-sixth of 1-percent of all people in North America could match the strand of hair as closely as Thurber.

But defense attorneys pointed out there are an estimated 300-million people in North America, leaving hundreds - if not thousands - who could potentially have a similar DNA profile, including Thurber's own family.

After lunch, testimony shifted to the grim task of proving Sanderholm's cause and manner of death.

Diana Schunn, an expert in sexual assault investigations, detailed for jurors how Sanderholm was raped before she died. Schunn found evidence of large wooden sticks used to violate Sanderholm while she was still alive.

Later, Dr. Jaime Oeberst of the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center showed jurors the other injuries Sanderholm sustained, including those that are believed to have caused her death.

Sanderholm appeared to have been repeatedly strangled. Prosecutors believe as she lost consciousness, her attacker would loosen his grip, allowing her to revive. They maintain this went on for as long as twelve minutes before Sanderholm died.

Sanderholm was also bruised from her head down. At one point, she was struck so violently that her head whipped around, severing an artery in the back of her neck.

She would eventually be dragged to the spot where investigators would find her body, as shown by scrapes and cuts on her back.

Oeberst ultimately concluded the cause of Sanderholm's death to be strangulation, and classified it as a homicide.

On Wednesday, prosecutors have only a handful of witnesses left to call. It's anticipated the morning will be spent discussing the final key piece of evidence in their case: more DNA.

Prosecutors told jurors at the start of trial they found DNA under Sanderholm's fingernails that links Thurber to the crime. This is the only evidence that has not yet been discussed in testimony.

Prosecutors say they will rest their case by noon Wednesday. Sources say Justin Thurber's attorneys will be brief if they offer any evidence in his defense. Closing arguments are possible as early as Wednesday afternoon, with the case going to the jury for verdict later in the day.

Stay with KAKE News and KAKE.com for updates.

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Tuesday, Feb. 10 - 2:30pm

*Note: Testimony this afternoon will be graphic at times. Reader discretion is advised.

The final witness of the day is Dr. Jaime Oeberst of the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center. She performed the autopsy on Jodi Sanderholm.

The first photo jurors see during this segment is the body bag containing Sanderholm's remains. Oeberst says she was identified through dental records.

In one of the following photos, jurors see a close-up of Sanderholm's head, with bruises around her forehead. Leaves, grass, and dirt were shoved into her ears and mouth.

The following photos work their way down Sanderholm's body, showing bruises on her shoulders. There are also a number of scratches on Sanderholm's body. Oeberst says the scratches are consistent with "animal activity" following her death.

The following photos show Sanderholm's hands and fingernails. It's under her fingernails prosecutors say they found additional DNA evidence linking Thurber to the crime. That evidence is expected first things Wednesday.

Other close-ups of Sanderholm's hands show bruising on her knuckles.

Oeberst says scrapes and cuts on Sanderholm's back would be consistent with dragging of her body.

Sanderholm had dirt on the soles of her feet. Her body was cleaned up after Oeberst and others collected evidence from her remains.

Oeberst says most of the bruises on Sanderholm would have happened while she was still alive. She says much of the bruising seen at her autopsy would be unlikely after death because blood stops flowing.

In Sanderholm's eyes were small blood vessels that had hemorrhaged. Oeberst says this is a generally a sign of strangulation. Bruising was also found around Sanderholm's neck, consistent with a possible repeated tightening and loosening of the hands around her throat.

Oeberst also shows jurors a diagram and explains how an artery in Sanderholm's neck was severed by a severe blow to her head.

Oeberst listed Sanderholm's primary cause of death as strangulation, followed by blunt force trauma to the head.

Oeberst says strangulation, if done quickly, takes 3-5 minutes. Prosecutors have previously argued Sanderholm may have lived up to 12 minutes because of the repeated tightening and loosening of the hands around her neck. Oeberst says that is a possible scenario in this case.

Oeberst classified Sanderholm's death as a homicide.

Oeberst is the last witness of the day, with defense attorneys asking no questions of their own.

Court is in recess until Wednesday morning at 9:00. Prosecutors say they will likely rest their case by noon, at which point defense attorneys take over and can present their own evidence if they choose.

The case could go to a jury before the end of the week.

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Tuesday, Feb. 10 - 1:15pm

*Note: Testimony this afternoon will be graphic at times. Reader discretion is advised.

Court resumes after lunch. Diana Schunn is on the stand. She is a nurse who specializes in SANE/SART (sexual assault) cases. She was present at Jodi Sanderholm's autopsy and examined her body for evidence of sexual assault.

Judge James Pringle requests our cameras not record or transmit any images of the autopsy. Although these photos would never be used on the news, the judge asks our cameras not even point in the direction of the evidence.

Schunn describes for jurors the area of the female anatomy she examines in sexual assault cases, pointing to a diagram of a woman's genitalia.

The first photos shown to jurors include a picture of Sanderholm on an autopsy table with her legs spread by doctors and nurses. There are pieces of wood that appear to have been shoved into her genitalia.

Chris Smith asks Schunn to explain the difference between postmortem and antimortem.

Antimortem means "before death," postmortem means "after death."

Schunn says the injuries she is showing jurors appear to have happened while Sanderholm was still alive. During autopsy, Schunn recovered wooden pieces buried up to two inches inside her genitalia.

Schunn answers a few more questions about how they collect evidence during a sexual assault examination, and is allowed to leave the stand.

Court is in recess for a few minutes while prosecutors prepare for their next and final witness of the day.

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Tuesday, Feb. 10 - 11:45am

Prosecutors call Kyla Plank to the witness stand. She testifies she received instant messages from Justin Thurber through his email account, Beastman315. The instant messages came in the days after Jodi Sanderholm's disappearance.

The content within the messages was not discussed, though one was sent at approximately 8:00 in the evening the day Jodi Sanderholm disappeared. This could play a part in establishing Thurber's activities or whereabouts that night.

Court is in recess for lunch and will resume at 1:00. The afternoon session is expected to focus largely on Jodi Sanderholm's autopsy results. This will detail exactly how authorities believe she died.

*******

Tuesday, Feb. 10 - 11:20am

Prosecutors shift gears briefly, calling several people who were friends with Justin Thurber. These are additional witnesses with whom Thurber may have tried to establish an alibi.

Debra Davis takes the stand a few moments after her son, Chris Davis. Chris Davis said in previous hearings he was given a letter reportedly written by Thurber in jail, asking for an alibi. Chris Davis says they were not together the day of Jodi's disappearance. Chris tells jurors he was in Derby the day of the crime.

Debra Davis confirms a letter arrived at her home several days after Thurber's arrest. The letter is shown to jurors, but not specifically discussed in open court.

*****

Tuesday, Feb. 10 - 11:00am

Melton's testimony continues after the recess. Prosecutors quickly move to Thurber's alleged involvement in the crime.

Melton says her testing of DNA samples taken from Jodi Sanderholm and the hair samples taken from Justin Thurber showed that Thurber or his immediate maternal relatives (mother and sister) could have left the hair in Jodi's car.

Melton told jurors mitochondrial DNA testing is not an exact identifier. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down through the mother, and is similar in her children. This could explain why Justin Thurber's mother and sister could not be ruled out as potential suspects.

Melton says they searched a nationwide database of known individuals for a similar DNA. They found less than a fraction of one percent of the North American population had a similar profile.

Further analysis of the DNA showed one particular element of Thurber's DNA that could not be matched in any other person in the national database. The element of DNA found in Thurber is exceptionally rare, leading authorities to believe that no more than .15% of the North American population could be the source. (Roughly 99.85% of all North Americans can be ruled out.)

Melton says she cannot prove Thurber is the absolute source of the hair, but also cannot rule him out.

Defense attorneys point out there are approximately 300,000,000 North Americans. One-tenth of one percent of that number would still mean there are possibly hundreds, even thousands with a similar profile.

*****

Tuesday, Feb. 10 - 10:30

Dr. Melton's testimony continues... she explains to jurors the makeup of the cells in our bodies, how DNA is obtained, and the means by which is it tested.

Court is in recess for 15 minutes. Prosecutors say they will move the specifics of the DNA test results and how they pertain to Thurber when court resumes.

******

Tuesday, Feb. 10 - 10:10am

Prosecutors call ACPD officer Jason Legleiter back to the stand. He executed a search warrant in October 2008, authorizing the collection of hairs from Justin Thurber's body. The hairs were separated and labeled as to which area of the body they came from, then sent to Kevin Winer at the Kansas City, MO, crime lab.

Doctor Terry Melton is next to testify. She runs Mitotyping Technologies in Pennsylvania. Her office performed the mitochondrial DNA testing on the hairs obtained from Justin Thurber and those found in Jodi Sanderholm's car. She has 18 years of professional experience in DNA testing, having performed more than 2,000 tests, testified in 90 trials (including some in Kansas), lectured other professionals, and published studies on the science.

One of her best-known cases involved the Russian royal family assassinated in 1918. For decades, there was a belief the youngest daughter, Anastasia, survived the assassination. A woman claiming to be Anastasia died in 1994. Through Melton's testing, authorities were able to rule she was NOT related to the former Russian royal family.

Melton outlines the basics of DNA structure and testing for jurors. She discusses the methods taken to prevent contamination and false results. Prosecutors lay this foundation to establish her as a credible and expert witness.

Her testimony continues...

*******

Tuesday, Feb. 10 - 9:30am

Court resumes Tuesday morning in the capital murder trial of Justin Thurber. The first witness called to the stand is Undersheriff Bill Mueller. He aided in the investigation into Jodi Sanderholm's disappearance, and specifically the recovery and search off her car from the state fishing lake.

Undersheriff Mueller is on the stand approximately five minutes. He is asked how detectives canvassed the car for evidence. Mueller describes using clear tape to lift "trace evidence" from the seats of Sanderholm's car. Prosecutors contend they found a strand of Thurber's hair during the search.

The next witness is ACPD Sgt. Luke Larson. He says he sent the evidence collected from the car off for testing.

Kevin Winer takes the stand after Larson, an expert in trace evidence analysis based in Kansas City. He studied the evidence obtained from Sanderholm's car, specifically 15 strands of human hair.

Winer says one strand in particular stood out. He describes how hair is dissected and examined under a microscope, and how scientists determine the difference between animal hair, human hair, and plant fibers.

Winer says for further comparison, he requested hair samples from Justin Thurber. Investigators provided Winer with hair from various parts of Thurber's body, including his head, arms, legs and chest.

Winer says hair is initially studied for color, texture, width, length, etc...

Winer says a strand of hair taken from Justin Thurber's right arm was "indistinguishable" from the hair recovered from Sanderholm's car.

However, Winer tells jurors that while the similarities may identify Thurber as a suspect in the case, the comparison does not definitively prove he is the source of the initial hair.

Defense attorney Tim Frieden offers a brief cross-examination of Winer. He points to the date of the initial hair testing, done in April 2008... more than a year after Sanderholm's disappearance and death. Hairs obtained from Thurber for comparison arrived later.

Winer tells jurors a more definitive answer as to who the hair belongs to can be made with mitochondrial DNA testing.

*******

Tuesday could be the last full day of testimony for prosecutors in the Justin Thurber trial. Monday, attorneys said they expected to rest their case as early as Wednesday morning.

Today, jurors will likely hear testimony and view photos detailing exactly how Jodi Sanderholm died on January 5, 2007. Prosecutors said in opening statements she was found savagely beaten, strangled and sexually assaulted.

Monday, jurors saw their first photos of Sanderholm's body the day she was discovered in a remote region of the Kaw Wildlife Area near the Oklahoma border in Cowley County. Several jurors appeared moved by the crime scene.

Prosecutors say they have DNA evidence obtained from underneath Sanderholm's fingernails that links Justin Thurber to her death. Investigators say they also found a strand of Justin Thurber's hair in Sanderholm's submerged car. When questioned by police, Thurber said he had never been in her car.

The case is moving quickly, in part because defense attorneys are not questioning the prosecution's witnesses. Attorney Ron Evans promised jurors at the start of trial he would not "belabor" the process any longer than necessary.

Stay with KAKE News and KAKE.com for updates throughout the day.


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