Day 6 of Leigha Ackerson murder trial focuses on DNA

DNA consistent with Ackerson’s found on chair, possibly a knife, in Catherine Kelley’s home

Leigha Ackerson stands accused of murdering Catherine Kelley in her home near Edwards.
Daily file photo

EAGLE — Monday’s testimony in Leigha Ackerson’s first-degree murder trial answered a lingering question about fingerprint evidence presented last Friday. It then moved to DNA evidence collected from Catherine Kelley’s home and from several items found on Ackerson and her husband, Jacob White, when they were arrested in connection with Kelley’s murder.

Matt Richardson, a crime scene analyst and fingerprint examiner for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, took the stand again Monday to clarify for the jury exactly where Ackerson’s fingerprint was found in Kelley’s home — a question left unanswered Friday.

Of the 18 fingerprints Richardson lifted from Kelley’s home and car, five were matched to White and one was matched to Ackerson, according to testimony last Friday

Richardson told the jury Monday that a print from Ackerson’s right index finger was found on the shower handle in the bathroom in the master bedroom of Kelley’s home.

That’s where police found Kelley on the shower floor, hidden under a pile of blankets and bathrobes, strangled to death with a brown “parachute” cord rope still wrapped twice around her neck, with one of her wrists cut to the bone and a knife stabbed into her eye.

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A muddled picture

Kayleigh Matook, a forensic scientist at Colorado Bureau of Investigation, detailed a mix of complex DNA evidence in the case Monday. 

According to Matook’s testimony, much of the evidence collected and analyzed for the Kelley murder contained mixtures of DNA from multiple sources — some of which apparently could not be identified. Some evidence was retested as recently as November 2019 using new STRmix software that the CBI started using in September 2018.

According to Matook, the rope used to strangle Kelley to death was tested for DNA at the loops knotted into each end and in the middle of the rope. Matook found a mixture of DNA from three individuals on both parts of the rope, with “very strong support” it included DNA from both Catherine Kelley and Jacob White. 

Ackerson’s DNA was “excluded” from both parts of the rope, found to not be part of the DNA mixture on it, according to Matook.

A hunting knife police found on Ackerson tested negative for the presence of blood. DNA consistent with Ackerson’s was found on the knife, but no DNA from White or Kelley were found on it, according to Matook.

The large Cutco knife police found atop the pile of blankets and bathrobes covering Kelley in her shower was tested. DNA matching the profile of Kelley’s was the only DNA found on the bloodied blade, while a mixture of DNA from four contributors was found on the knife handle. According to Matook, testing found strong support for Kelley’s DNA being part of the mixture, strong support for White’s DNA being part of the mixture, and moderate support for Ackerson’s DNA being part of the mixture.

The knife stabbed into Kelley’s eye after she was already dead, according to earlier testimony, was also tested for DNA, Matook told the jury.  The knife’s bloodied blade had a single source of DNA that matched the profile for Kelley. The handle was found to contain a mixture of DNA from two contributors. The largest of those contributors matched the DNA profile for Kelley. White’s DNA could not be excluded from the mixture on the handle as a potential contributor; Ackerson’s was excluded.

Ackerson’s DNA was again excluded from a mixture of DNA found on a Cutco knife police believe was stolen from Kelley’s home. It was found in a backpack near her house. There was strong support that both Kelley’s DNA and White’s DNA were part of that mixture.

A mixture of DNA from three contributors was found on an office chair in Kelley’s home. The major contributor matched the DNA profile for Ackerson, Matook said.

When questioned by Ackerson’s defense attorney, Amber St. Clair, Matook added that fingernail clippings from Kelley’s hands were tested for DNA. Ackerson’s DNA was not found in an analysis of the clippings. 

In regard to the moderate support for Ackerson’s DNA on the Cutco knife police found on the pile of blankets and bathrobes covering Kelley, Matook agreed with St. Clair that DNA can be “transferred” between people and items. 

“So a person you shook hands with may never touch that knife, but once you shake hands and touch that knife you transfer (their DNA) to the knife?” St. Clair asked. “You could,” Matook answered.

More evidence admitted

Monday afternoon, prosecutors admitted another long list of evidence items found around Kelley’s home in wire baskets. Police believe Ackerson and White stole the baskets from her home to transport items. 

Contents included food and kitchen wares, blankets, toiletries, a Holy Bible, a Colorado driver’s license and Maryland driver’s license for Jacob White, $56.50 in cash, a jewelry box containing a ring, and a bag with six marijuana canisters police have traced back to Jacob White.

In White’s car, found at a nearby trailhead, police found more food items, a marriage certificate for White and Ackerson, an expired Pennsylvania driver’s license for Ackerson, paychecks and medical bills for Ackerson, her high school diploma and transcripts, a certificate of authenticity for a ring purchased at Jared the Galleria of Jewelry, and White’s cellphone.

Police also detailed evidence from Kelley’s phone.

Authorities allege Ackerson and White broke into Kelley’s home through a guest bathroom window and hid inside the home for two days without Kelley knowing they were there before killing Kelley on Jan. 24, 2018. Both were arrested in the vicinity of Kelley’s Pilgrims Down home in the early morning hours of Jan. 25.

White has already pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and burglary for his role in Kelley’s killing and been sentenced to 68 years in prison. Ackerson’s trial continues Tuesday.

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