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Expert defense witness: Seacat’s pants were improperly packaged initially

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, June 6, 2013, at 1:42 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, June 11, 2013, at 7:42 a.m.

— An expert witness called by Brett Seacat’s defense Thursday told the jury a pair of BTU pants Seacat wore the night a fire charred his house were improperly packaged for arson analysis immediately after they were collected for evidence by law enforcement.

Gene Gietzen said in his review of police documents as well as laboratory- and evidence-related issues in the case, he discovered a statement written in a KBI forensic scientist’s notes that indicates the BTUs weren’t placed in a proper storage container for at least an hour before they were turned over the agency – and possibly 22 months before arson testing was conducted by the KBI.

A portion of the notes, which were displayed on a projector in court Thursday, says the bag that held the pants was “Not sealed properly for fire-debris analysis.” The document indicates the pants were received by the KBI in a “tape sealed plastic bag”; the phrase: “(arson bag?)” appears beside it.

According to testimony given earlier in the trial, the KBI found gasoline on the pants during testing. Prosecutors allege Seacat, 37, used an accelerant to start the fire that burned the house he shared with his wife, 34-year-old Vashti Seacat, after fatally shooting her. Investigators found a melted gas can on Vashti’s bed beside her body.

The defense is arguing a depressed Vashti set the house on fire then committed suicide.

Seacat reportedly wore the pants in the hours prior to and immediately following the fire. Later that morning, law enforcement collected the pants, which were placed in a paper bag and eventually put in plastic bag sealed with duct tape, according to testimony heard by the jury Thursday.

It wasn’t until earlier this year that the prosecution asked the KBI to test the pants for the presence of accelerants.

Gietzen testified Thursday that proper storage methods calls for fire evidence to be placed in specific impermeable containers – an unlined paint can or nylon bag – to limit evaporation of substances, such as fuel, off of items. Many other plastic and paper bags allow air through, he told the court.

“Air exposed to the hydrocardons of an accelerant will cause it to evaporate,” Gietzen said. The nylon bag is “basically an airtight seal,” he said.

“Nothing can go in and nothing can go out.”

Speaking later of the KBI’s testing of the pants, Gietzen said: “This analysis may have been flawed from the onset because the evidence (pants) was not packaged properly. It was not collected properly and it was not packaged properly.”

Associate counsel to the prosecution Tom Bath worked to pick apart Gietzen’s testimony during cross examination – both questioning his qualifications and asking whether he’d contacted anyone who had handled the pants to ask about the pants’ storage, had his assessment reviewed by peers or conducted his own laboratory analysis on the pants.

Gietzen said he did none of those things because they are not part of his typical independent analysis when hired for cases or his understanding of what court procedures permit during a case.

Seacat’s defense on Thursday morning also continued questioning law enforcement officials about the security of the Seacat house after it was declared a crime scene. Attorneys Roger Falk and Val Wachtel on Wednesday pointed out that a crime scene log, which records who arrives at and leaves a crime scene, was not started until several hours after the fire.

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