Evidence scant in murder case
By COLLEEN JENKINS
Published January 1, 2007
TAMPA - In the 20 months since Sarah Lunde's body turned up in an abandoned fish farm pond, the case file on the Ruskin teenager's death investigation has risen several feet high.
David Lee Onstott, accused by the state of killing and attempting to rape 13-year-old Sarah, figures prominently in the documents. But something else is conspicuously absent: physical evidence linking Onstott to the crimes.
Consider also a confession that doesn't fully jibe with the medical examiner's report and a lack of eye witnesses, and what results is a mostly circumstantial case that doesn't appear airtight based on documents made public so far.
"Something is not right in this case right now. Something is off," said Charles Rose, a criminal law professor at Stetson University College of Law. "The state has got a proof problem."
Prosecutors and Onstott's attorneys from the Hillsborough Public Defender's Office, gearing up for a March trial, would not comment for this story.
They have been busy with depositions, sorting out what happened to Sarah after she disappeared from her mobile home April 10, 2005. Her 17-year-old brother said he last saw her there after 9 p.m. When he got home at 4 a.m., the door was wide open and she was gone.
During the following week, investigators received 251 leads from around the state and country on Sarah's whereabouts, records released this month show. Most were useless - psychics who said they had visions of what happened to Sarah and dozens of people reporting sightings of a girl with a green cast after Sarah likely was dead.
One woman reported that her brother, just out of prison for sexual battery, came to her home on April 12 to say he had just quit his job at a Ruskin box factory, cut off his ankle monitor and was planning to run to Massachusetts. Investigators put out an alert for the man and collected information on his background. He was sent back to prison, though the case file doesn't indicate whether he was interviewed about Sarah.
Detectives instead zeroed in on Onstott, a registered sex offender who had dated Sarah's mother and came looking for her the morning after Sarah's disappearance. When he heard the mother wasn't there, he left with a beer bottle that had been inside the mobile home.
On April 16, searchers found Sarah's body - weighted down by concrete blocks, significantly decomposed, naked below the waist with her bra pushed up around her neck.
A day later, Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee announced that Onstott had confessed to choking the sixth-grader and dumping her body.
Months of evidence testing followed. None of it has linked Onstott to the death. Tire impressions from the crime scene didn't match Onstott's Ford pickup or his girlfriend's Chevy Lumina, and shoe impressions didn't match several tested pairs of his shoes.
DNA from Sarah's bed matched her 17-year-old brother and his 16-year-old friend, not Onstott. Sarah's fitted bedsheet and other areas in her home produced no blood. No semen or sperm was found on vaginal, anal and oral swabs from Sarah, no blood or semen on her shirt.
"I'm sure prosecutors were banking on the DNA being a match," Tampa defense attorney Rick Terrana said. "And the fact that it's not a match is certainly something that's admissible."
Prosecutors, of course, have convicted people of murder without DNA evidence. But jurors demand it more with the proliferation of crime scene TV shows and the expectation of advanced technology they've created.
"They look for the CSI component in cases now," New Port Richey defense attorney J. Larry Hart said. "It's certainly something that the defense will make much of."
Given the lack of physical evidence, the state's case likely will hinge on Onstott's statement to detectives. But even that could be disputed.
The full extent of the conversation with detectives is not public. Reports released last year included two key phrases, alleging that Onstott raised his handcuffed arms in the air and said, "I did it." Then, "I'm guilty of murder."
In a recorded jail call with his ex-wife, Onstott said, "You know I've broken every commandment now. Every single one."
His attorneys are expected to argue at a hearing in February that the confession should be thrown out. But if they fail to persuade Circuit Judge Ronald Ficarrotta, they can still argue it is unreliable, legal experts said.
Here's why: The sheriff said Onstott admitted to choking Sarah, causing her to fall unconscious and die. But the medical examiner's report said she died from crushing blows to the head.
Hart guessed that defense attorneys will spend a lot of time trying to raise reasonable doubt in jurors' minds on that point.
"There does need to be some connection on fact between the confession and the homicidal act," he said. "If you can't get the statement thrown out, then you at least want it ignored."
At a hearing next month, Onstott's attorneys will ask a judge to grant them copies of authorities' notes that might help the defense. The attorneys indicated in a motion filed last week that Sarah's teenage brother Andrew made inconsistent statements to investigators and failed a polygraph, and his 16-year-old friend admitted to having two sexual encounters with Sarah only after he was confronted with DNA evidence from her bed.
The state is seeking the death penalty for Onstott, and the experts said jurors will closely scrutinize all the evidence in such a serious case. Unless prosecutors tie Onstott to a crime scene or offer a motive, the defendant's attorneys have reason for optimism, the Stetson law professor said.
"It is a case," Rose said, "that has great potential for a reasonable doubt argument for the defense."Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.