BILLINGS - An evidence expert from the Montana State Crime Lab and an expert in animal DNA were called by prosecutors Tuesday in their effort to link a dog hair found on a towel used to suffocate murder victim Patti Hubbert to Richard Covington's family pet.
The trace analyst expert, Alice Ammen, also told jurors at Covington's triple-murder trial that fibers found on the seat of Gerald Morris' pants were similar to the seat fibers found in a truck prosecutors say Covington borrowed on the day Morris was killed.
Covington's trial for the deaths of Morris, Hubbert and her companion, Norman Leighton, entered its fifth week Tuesday. Covington is charged with three counts of deliberate homicide and a dozen other crimes connected to the September 2006 triple slayings.
Prosecutors Scott Twito and Rod Souza called several witnesses Tuesday, including Billings Fire Marshal Mike Spini and forensic document examiner Karen Runyon, who told jurors that the writing in journals previously admitted as evidence matched Covington's handwriting.
Spini told the jury that a June 2005 fire at the small cluster of apartments where Leighton and Hubbert were killed the following year was incorrectly labeled an accident by a deputy fire marshal. Spini said a review of the evidence at the request of a sheriff's detective made him change the cause of the fire to undetermined. With more information gathered since that time, Spini said, he now considers the fire to have been set intentionally.
Prosecutors are expected to rest their case today after calling dozens of witnesses. Jury selection began Feb. 8.
Ammen, the crime lab analyst, told the jury she found a single dog hair on the blue towel that investigators found in Hubbert's mouth and which caused her death. Ammen said she found similar dog hairs on items belonging to Covington collected later, including a jacket and gloves.
Ammen said she asked investigators to collect hairs from Covington's pet, a dog named Sweet Pea. A microscopic analysis of all the hairs showed they shared several characteristics, she said.
"We're you able to eliminate Sweet Pea as a source" of the hairs, Souza asked Ammen.
"No," she replied.
Ammen said she also found small wood chips on the towel that were similar to wood chips found on Covington's gloves.
And Ammen said she found 14 similar gray fibers on the seat of Morris' pants. The fibers were similar to the polyester material used as the seat covering of a pickup truck that belonged to Mark Rioux, a man who testified earlier that he let Covington borrow the truck on Sept. 19, 2006. Prosecutors say that was the day Covington drove Morris to a remote area south of Billings and shot him to death.
Dr. Joy Halvorson, who operates a private lab in California, also testified Wednesday. The lab works with animal DNA, and Halvorson said she has developed an extensive database of dog DNA for comparisons.
Halvorson was provided the hair found on the towel and a known biological sample from Sweet Pea for comparison, she said. Her analysis found that the DNA profile of the samples matched, she said, and the type of DNA from Sweet Pea is rare, occurring in only about three of every 1,000 dogs.