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SFU forensic entomologist uses blowfly evidence to exonerate American woman imprisoned for 17 years

November 28, 2018
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On Dec. 4, at the SFU Centre for Forensic Research’s annual symposium, criminology professor Gail Anderson will talk about a fascinating court case in which her expertise as a forensic entomologist exonerated an American woman who had spent almost 17 years in jail for a murder she didn’t commit.

By Diane Luckow

Kirstin Lobato, 2000 high school photo

Kirstin Blaise Lobato, an American who was wrongfully convicted in 2002 for murder, gained her freedom earlier this year thanks to a 2009 affidavit from SFU forensic entomologist Gail Anderson. The affidavit convinced the Innocence Project to help secure Lobato’s petition for a third retrial.

The Innocence Project works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, usually using DNA evidence. In Lobato’s case, however, Anderson’s knowledge of how and when blowflies colonize a corpse with their eggs was key to proving the murder occurred at a time when Lobato had an unbreakable alibi.

Lobato was just 18 years old when she was accused of brutally stabbing and killing a homeless man on July 8, 2001. His mutilated body was found at around 10 p.m. under a thin layer of trash behind a dumpster on the Las Vegas strip. The medical examiner initially estimated the time of death an hour or two before the body was found. But he then shifted his opinion several times, eventually settling on up to 24 hours before the body was discovered.

Arrested despite alibi

No physical evidence connected Lobato to the murder, but Las Vegas detectives followed up on a third-hand rumour that she had similarly slashed an assailant when she was sexually assaulted in Las Vegas the month before. They arrested her, despite an alibi from several witnesses placing her at her parents’ home on July 8—an almost three-hour drive from the murder scene.

Time of death was key

The state’s case hinged on the medical examiner’s estimated time of death. The state claimed Lobato had enough time to commit the crime and then drive three hours to her parents’ home in time to clean up and be seen in the neighbourhood. She was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to 45 years to life in prison. She appealed.

A second trial

During a second trial in 2006, the medical examiner again changed his opinion, saying the victim died eight to 14 hours before discovery. Lobato was again found guilty and convicted of voluntary manslaughter and other charges. She was sentenced to 13 to 35 years in prison.

Importantly, at neither of her trials did the defence team question why the medical examiner changed his opinion. Nor did the team call on a forensic entomologist to clarify why there was no insect colonization on the body, which could help clarify time of death.

Professor Gail Anderson

In December 2009, Hans Sherrer, publisher of the magazine Justice Denied, contacted Anderson to ask if she could help exonerate Lobato using forensic entomology. When he told her that no insects had been found on the body, and that the murder was alleged to have occurred up to 24 hours before discovery, she immediately knew that something was terribly wrong, and got involved on a pro bono basis.

“I submitted an affidavit that in my opinion the victim had died within two hours of being found, which would have been after sunset,” says Anderson.

She explains that blowflies are always the first insects to colonize a corpse, typically within minutes. But they don’t fly after dark.

“That was the only explanation for finding no insects on the body,” she says. “He must have died after dark. And Lobato had an unbreakable alibi for that time period.”

In 2010, Lobato petitioned for a new trial based on Anderson’s affidavit and that of two other forensic entomologists. Her petition was denied in 2011. She again appealed but her pleas fell on deaf ears until 2016 when the Innocence Project got involved after reviewing the case and the forensic entomology.

Kirstin Lobato. Photo: Hans Sherrer.

A new ruling

On Dec. 19, 2017, Nevada District Court judge Stefany Miley heard testimony supporting an 8:00 p.m. time of death from Anderson, two American forensic entomologists, and a forensic pathologist. Ruling that Lobato’s lawyers were ineffective and had failed to present forensic evidence, he ordered a new trial. But 10 days later, the prosecution instead vacated the case with prejudice, a move that exonerated Lobato and permanently dismissed the case.

“It’s extremely satisfying to see my science being used in this manner,” says Anderson. “And extremely unfortunate that they didn’t call on an entomologist 17 years ago.”

Lobato was released from jail on Jan. 2, 2018.