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BILLINGS - After calling two defense experts Friday morning, Richard Covington's lawyers rested their case, ending the evidence phase of the triple-murder trial that began five weeks ago.

District Judge G. Todd Baugh excused jurors for the weekend at about 11:30 a.m. Friday, explaining that the trial would resume Tuesday morning with closing arguments. Jurors will then begin their deliberations into whether the 47-year-old Billings man is guilty of killing three of his neighbors in September 2006.

Covington has sat quietly through the trial, speaking occasionally with his public defenders, Randi Hood and Matthew Wald, and writing a few notes. Speculation that he might take the witness stand ended Friday when the defense rested its case without calling him.

Covington is accused of killing Norman Leighton, Patti Hubbert and Gerald Morris, all residents of a small cluster of apartments off South 28th Street where Covington also lived with his wife and son.

The bodies of Leighton and Hubbert, who shared one of the apartments, were found bound and gagged on Sept. 22 when firefighters were called to a report of smoke. The couple had been beaten and suffocated and bound by metal coat hanger wire, duct tape and telephone cord. A pathologist told jurors that they likely died within about 12 hours of when the fire was reported at 6 a.m.

The small apartment had been ransacked, and prosecutors believe the couple was held for several days before they were killed and the fire set to destroy evidence of the robbery and slayings.

Leighton died of several severe blows to his head, and Hubbert was suffocated by a rag shoved into her mouth and secured with tape.

Morris was reported missing the day after the fire. His body was found about two weeks later when a road worker cutting grass came across his remains seven miles south of Billings off Blue Creek Road. He had been shot in the back, and much of the trial focused on when Morris was killed. Prosecutors believe he was killed on Sept. 19 with a .44-caliber Magnum revolver stolen from Leighton.

A motive for Morris' death has never been established. He lived directly next door to Leighton and Hubbert.

On Friday, Covington's public defenders aimed to raise doubts about the conclusions reached by two expert witnesses who testified for the prosecution. The defense attorneys called their own experts in the fields of animal DNA testing and forensic entomology, the study of insects in relation to criminal investigations.

The defense case began Thursday morning with Covington's lawyers calling a quick succession of seven witnesses, many of whom admitted to serious drug and alcohol addictions.

Dr. Melba Ketchum, who operates a private lab in Texas, was the defense expert in animal DNA. She said the prosecution's expert in the same field used a flawed method of analysis to make her conclusions.

The prosecution witness said testing on a dog hair found on the towel in Hubbert's mouth matched to a known sample from Covington's family pet named Sweet Pea, and the DNA was rare in the population of dogs in the United States.

Ketchum said the conclusion was flawed because it did not use a database of dog DNA collected from a local population of canines. She also told the jury that finding one dog hair at a crime scene "doesn't have much value to the case."

On cross-examination by Deputy County Attorney Scott Twito, Ketchum agreed that there is a "point of contention" among animal DNA experts about whether a national database or one specific to a local dog population is more accurate in determining the frequency of certain genetic findings.

A professor of entomology at a Texas university, Jeffrey Tomberlin, was the last defense witness. He said the state's insect expert who testified earlier at the trial made mistakes in the method he used to calculate when Morris died based on the growth of fly maggots found on his remains. Tomberlin said he used the same information provided to the state expert to calculate a wider range of possible dates for Morris's death.

After the defense rested, prosecutors briefly recalled Sgt. Sam Bofto of the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office. Bofto said some of the testimony provided by defense witnesses on Thursday was different from what those same witnesses told investigators in the weeks and months after the crimes.

Covington is charged with three counts of deliberate homicide and a dozen other felony offenses related to the slayings. He was sentenced last year to 40 years in prison after pleading guilty to an unrelated robbery of a woman at a downtown Billings parking garage in 2007.

 

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