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Attack, not attacker, at issue as murder trial opens in Lander

Nov 19, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

In the first morning of the Charles Darrell Laster murder trial, the defense focused less on whether the defendant attacked a deceased man and more on whether the assault caused the death.

Shey Elan Bruce, 45, of Shoshoni, is charged with second-degree murder in the May death of Laster, 65, also of Shoshoni.

Lawyers selected a jury Monday, and the trial began Tuesday at the Fremont County Courthouse in Lander.

In his opening statement, Fremont County deputy attorney Pat LeBrun said Laster was in his bedroom with his wife, Lavena, the night of May 14. Bruce was also in a romantic relationship with the woman.

"I will prove the defendant ... came into that bedroom and attacked Lavena and Darrell Laster," LeBrun said. "Charles (Laster) died of his head injuries."

Bruce struck the Lasters on their heads with a beer bottle that evening, Lebrun said. After the assault, law enforcement and medics responded to the scene and examined Lavena Laster but Charles Laster refused treatment, LeBrun said.

The man went to bed and was found dead in his living room the next morning.

Blunt force

A forensic pathologist said the man died of bleeding inside his brain caused by a blunt-force blow.

Public defender Devon Petersen, in his opening statement, pointed to what he considers a hole in the prosecution's story. The lawyer indicated that some other event caused the mortal blow.

"The last time somebody sober saw Charles Darrell Laster alive, he was fine, he didn't have a scratch on him, he didn't have a bruise on him, he didn't have any swelling," Petersen said. "When they saw him (the next morning after he died), he has blood all about his face, all about his left hand and on the sleeve of his shirt and back of his shirt."

He could not be sure the fluid was blood, because it was not tested, Petersen said.

If Laster died of bleeding in his skull, he would only have bled a small amount from his nose and mouth, Petersen said.

"It doesn't come gushing out," he said.

Prosecutors have little evidence to support their story, Petersen said.

"Normally in a murder case, this table would be full of items," he said pointing to the evidence table. "This table is not going to have any physical evidence on it."

Investigators collected beer bottles from the scene but did not test them for fingerprints or blood, Petersen said. They also did not test Laster's shirt to see if the substance that was soaking it was blood.

The only evidence the state has that Bruce struck the Lasters with a beer bottle is a 911 call recording in which Charles Laster says as much, Petersen said.

Both sides said they will support their opening statements with witnesses and other evidence,

Coroner report

After the openings, Fremont County chief deputy coroner Mark Stratmoen testified.

Through that witness, LeBrun sought to explain how a red fluid could appear on parts of Charles Laster's body if he died of bleeding within his brain.

LeBrun introduced into evidence nine photographs the coroner's office took at the scene of Laster's death. Two showed a pillow that was under his head and appeared soaked in a fluid.

LeBrun showed the photographs onto a large screen for the jury to see. The image quality in the projections was poor, and colors were difficult to distinguish.

Jurors will be able to view the original prints later.

"There's possibly apparent blood or purge," Stratmoen said of the pillow photographs.

Purge is reddish or clear fluid the body produces from the lungs after death, he said.

He later said Laster initially was reportedly found lying face down but had been turned over by the time Stratmoen arrived at the scene.

In his questioning of Stratmoen, Petersen attacked the thoroughness of the investigation.

The defense attorney asked the deputy coroner if his office tested the fluid on Laster's shirt, and Stratmoen said no. Law enforcement collects evidence at the scene and the forensic pathologist tests anything having to do with the body, such as a shirt, Stratmoen said.

The deputy coroner also said dogs reportedly cleaned Laster's face of some fluid before first responders arrived, indicating even more blood may have been on the deceased man than what appears in the photographs.

Peterson next tried to establish other possibilities for how Laster sustained a head injury the night before he was found dead.

Laster's medical history indicated that in 2009 he fell 12 to 14 feet off an oil rig and hit the back of his head, causing a skull fracture and hemorrhaging in his brain, Stratmoen said. The injury caused chronic dizziness and balance problems.

Laster's blood alcohol content was found to be .206 percent during the autopsy.

Peterson also asked if a large, Maglite flashlight was on a coffee table next to where Laster's body was found, but Stratmoen could not remember.

On redirect, LeBrun sought to rule out the flashlight as a murder weapon by showing it had not been moved for some time.

The prosecutor projected a photograph showing the coffee table and the Maglite.

Stratmoen pointed out that in the photo, which was taken after investigators arrived, a beer can laid on top of the flashlight and a credit card leaned up against it.

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