Defense attorneys for Paul and Ruben Flores moved for a mistrial and dismissal as the prosecution rested its case in the Kristin Smart murder trial Tuesday in Salinas, following an eventful afternoon in the courtroom.
The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office has been arguing its case in front of two Monterey County Superior Court juries since July 16 — just over two months.
Outside of the presence of the juries, Paul Flores’ defense attorney, Robert Sanger, and Ruben Flores’ attorney, Harold Mesick, both moved to dismiss the case against the Flores men after the prosecution finished its last witness. Sanger argued there is “no evidence of a murder case, no evidence of a rape, and no evidence in this case” involving Smart, who vanished after an off-campus party in 1996.
“We don’t even know if Kristin Smart is dead, and I know that’s hurtful to hear and I’m sorry to say it,” Mesick said. “For all we know, she’s out in Dubai or the Middle East.”
When arguing against the defense motion to dismiss, San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Chris Peuvrelle said the evidence is clear. “There is no doubt Kristin Smart is dead,” the prosecutor said as he rehashed all the evidence that has been presented at trial thus far.
This included videos of Paul Flores being interviewed by law enforcement officers in 1996, which Peuvrelle said show that Flores is “basically a pathological liar lying through his teeth.”
Monterey County Superior Court Judge Jennifer O’Keefe ultimately denied the motions. The defense is expected to call its first witness Wednesday morning.
Jurors Shown Explicit Image From Paul Flores’ Computer
The final piece of evidence that the prosecution showed in court was a sexually explicit screenshot from a video found on Paul Flores’ computer, showing a young woman with a red ball gag in her mouth. In the image, the woman appears to be on Flores’ bed at his San Pedro home.
Two employees of the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office testified earlier Tuesday to confirm what the defendant’s bed looked like and how investigators obtained his computer.
Christopher Fitzpatrick, a computer forensic specialist for the Sheriff’s Office, confirmed Tuesday that he searched the computer for evidence. Fitzpatrick said he found photos of Flores family members on the computer, as well as Paul Flores’ tax documents dating back for several years.
O’Keefe told jurors the image was only to be considered to corroborate a single detail from the testimonies of two women who said they were raped by the defendant: the fact that Paul Flores owned a red ball gag.
Neither Sanger nor Mesick had questions for Fitzpatrick regarding the image. In proceedings heard outside the presence of the jurors, Sanger put on the record his objections to the screenshot being shown, calling it “unduly prejudicial.” Sanger said there was no context to the image, and no evidence of a rape or attempted rape.
“Just because something is relevant doesn’t mean it should be admissible,” he said.
Peuvrelle said the probative value of the evidence “could not be higher” as it corroborates testimony of two key witnesses. O’Keefe noted for the record that the video was originally submitted during pretrial motions as evidence of sexual assault, and the court denied the motion because of the potential prejudicial effect on jurors.
The prosecution resubmitted the video recently to instead be entered as corroboration for the two women who say they were raped by the defendant, O’Keefe said.
The judge said she rewatched the video, calling it “shocking” and suggesting that still images from it or a stipulation regarding the ball gag be entered instead. A stipulation is a statement read into the court record that parties agree to be fact without the need of calling a witness or displaying physical evidence.
Peuvrelle submitted several still images to the court, and O’Keefe said she chose the “least inflammatory” photo. Sanger said he argued for a stipulation, but that Peuvrelle would not agree to it. Peuvrelle noted he also submitted cut video clips showing Flores’ face that were not accepted into evidence.
Defense Casts Doubt on DNA Expert Testimony
Earlier Tuesday, Angela Butler, a senior forensic DNA analyst with the Serological Research Institute in Richmond, concluded her testimony after a lengthy cross-examination from the defense.
Sanger focused largely on the fact that there were no “validation studies” on the accuracy of the human blood protein test Butler’s lab uses to confirm blood from soil.
But Butler said a validation study specific to soil isn’t necessary. “It’s impossible to have a validation study for every forensic sample,” she said, adding that the lack of such a study “does not negate your results.”
The lab practices quality control measures on each test lot it receives, Butler said, adding that existing validation tests quantify how much a sample can be diluted to still receive a positive reaction. Butler affirmed that neither Smart’s nor Paul Flores’ DNA could be included or excluded from the DNA mixture found on the small brown stain on a canvas mattress pad sent to her lab by the Sheriff’s Office. It was presumably taken from Flores’ residence hall room.
The mixture likely included DNA profiles from three people, one of them male, Butler confirmed, but the profiles could only include either Paul Flores or Smart — not both.
“If it were one, then it could not have been the other, right?” Sanger asked. “Yes,” Butler responded.
On cross examination, Mesick confirmed that Butler did not check the pH of the soil samples before testing them — something Butler said is not required. When asked, Butler said that the blood found on the soil could have been from a human, a ferret or a primate because no DNA evidence could be found.
Defense Asks For Mistrial Following Heated Moment in Court
Sanger attempted to move for a mistrial Tuesday, alleging the prosecution engaged in misconduct when questioning a Sheriff’s Office detective. The judge ultimately denied the motion during a brief proceeding outside of the presence of the jury.
The motion came after a heated moment in the courtroom between Sanger and Peuvrelle while questioning Det. Clint Cole about a white truck owned by Paul Flores. Cole confirmed the white Nissan truck was two-wheel drive, and currently in the custody of the Sheriff’s Office.
Sanger asked Cole on cross-examination if he knew whether the truck had been raised or modified since 1996. Cole replied he had no personal knowledge of that and did not see any evidence.
Next, Peuvrelle asked Cole if he was present in the courtroom when witness Jennifer Hudson testified the truck she saw Flores drive appeared to be four-wheel drive. This drew a passionate objection from Sanger, shouting “Mr. Peuvrelle knows better than that. I have a motion” over Peuvrelle. The prosecutor quipped back, “He opened the door, your honor.”
O’Keefe quickly excused the jury to address the objection on the record. Sanger alleged Peuvrelle “not only asked what he knew was a leading question, he also asked a misleading question and asked a second question while the objection was still pending.” He called Peuvrelle’s actions “prosecutorial misconduct” and motioned for a mistrial in the case. “This isn’t ‘Law and Order,’ ” Sanger said.
The defense attorney called the question “totally inappropriate” because the question implied Hudson saw Flores’ specific truck, adding that Peuvrelle “knows that Jennifer Hudson has committed perjury.” Peuvrelle said there was no misconduct, and that he was simply responding to a question asked by Sanger.
He also noted Hudson testified that she saw what appeared to be a four-wheel-drive truck, calling the question he asked “fair game.” Mesick did not join Sanger’s motion, and O’Keefe ultimately denied it.
Court is expected to resume Wednesday morning with the defense’s first witness.