October 30, 2012

Judge limits testimony by KBI agent in Seacat murder trial

A judge ruled Tuesday in the murder case against Brett Seacat that prosecutors can’t present specific conclusions by a KBI agent about the scene where his wife’s body was found.

A judge ruled Tuesday in the murder case against Brett Seacat that prosecutors can’t present specific conclusions by a KBI agent about the scene where his wife’s body was found.

The agent’s conclusions dealt with three areas:

• Staging of a crime scene, including any efforts to conceal or mislead investigators.
• Blood-pattern analysis.
• The sequence of events around the time Vashti Seacat died.

Although Judge Larry Solomon ruled that the agent’s specific conclusions couldn’t be offered at the trial, he said that some of the information touched on in the agent’s conclusions could be presented by the agent or other experts at Brett Seacat’s trial, scheduled for May 20.

The central issue in the trial is whether 34-year-old Vashti Seacat fatally shot herself or whether Brett Seacat, a former law enforcement trainer and Sedgwick County sheriff’s deputy, shot her and set the fire at their Kingman home in April 2011 before escaping with their two young sons. She had filed for divorce.

In addition to first-degree murder, Seacat also is charged with aggravated arson and two counts of aggravated child endangerment.

Tuesday’s court hearing also offered glimpses into how trial testimony could take shape. One of the prosecutors, Kansas Assistant Attorney General Amy Hanley, said one of the conclusions that KBI Senior Special Agent Cory Latham would have testified about involves information that Seacat said he lifted up his wife — after she had a gunshot wound to her upper body – but that no blood was seen on him.

Latham’s conclusions are in a report that was filed under seal. During the hearing, the judge and attorneys on both sides didn’t discuss the report in detail. The judge denied a defense request to close the hearing.

Hanley argued that the KBI agent’s conclusions, for example, could help jurors understand what kind of blood flow could be expected from the type of gunshot wound on Vashti Seacat. But the judge questioned why jurors couldn’t make blood-flow conclusions on their own after hearing testimony.

Hanley indicated that Brett Seacat’s statements to investigators are part of the prosecution, saying Seacat’s “own words are being used against him.” She didn’t elaborate.

One of Seacat’s defense attorneys, Val Wachtel, argued that if Latham could testify to his specific conclusions, it would be “cumulative” and “extremely prejudicial” rather than being “probative” as to the facts.

In his ruling, Solomon said that the agent’s conclusions were more of a prosecutor’s closing argument rather than objective, scientific analysis. That doesn’t mean that experts like Latham couldn’t testify as to any inconsistencies they might see between physical evidence and any statements, the judge said.

Hanley, the prosecutor, said the case needs experts’ testimony because “this case is circumstantial. There’s no direct evidence. There are no eyewitnesses.”

Hanley said that what Latham offered by his conclusions was bringing different pieces of evidence together to show a whole picture for the jury. But Solomon said that experts in specific areas, such as handwriting or weapons, could testify about those areas.

Part of the experts’ testimony will likely deal with arson. Hanley noted Tuesday that at an earlier hearing, there was testimony that the fire had been set in more than one place in the Seacats’ home.

The next hearing in the case, dealing with pre-trial motions, is set for Dec. 10.

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