New DNA focus of trial in Conn. teen's '88 killing

AP News
Posted: Apr 12, 2011 3:34 PM
New DNA focus of trial in Conn. teen's '88 killing

Defense lawyers said Tuesday that a man convicted of killing a pregnant teenager 23 years ago and released after being cleared by DNA evidence is guilty and their client now on trial had nothing to do with the crime.

Pedro Miranda has been charged with capital felony and murder in the death of Carmen Lopez, who was hanged from a couch with an electrical cord in January 1988, prosecutors said. He's also awaiting trial in the killings of two other teenage girls from Hartford in the 1980s.

But defense lawyer Vicki Hutchinson told the jury of seven women and five men in Hartford Superior Court that Lopez's boyfriend, Miguel Roman, who was convicted of murder and served 20 years of a 60-year prison sentence before being exonerated, was properly charged and convicted.

"They got it right the first time," she said.

More than two dozen police officers, including 15 detectives, examined dozens of pieces of evidence and interviewed 100 people before arresting and charging Roman, she said. A judge set him free in December 2008 based on the DNA test results.

State prosecutor David Zagaja told the jury in opening statements that new technology determining DNA leaves no doubt that Miranda is the one who raped, beat and strangled the 17-year-old Lopez.

"Twenty-three years later, why are we here?" Zagaja asked the jury. "The technology in 1988 is not what we have today."

The time that has lapsed was an issue in testimony by Stanley Lukas, a retired Hartford detective. He said he could not recall a detail about the crime scene.

"We're dealing with 23 years," he said. "I don't remember who exactly touched the couch."

The jury was shown photos of Lopez's body shortly after police entered the apartment. She was hanged from the couch, her hands and feet bound and her mouth stuffed with fabric, perhaps a sock, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors tried to show that evidence gathered by police in their initial investigation demonstrates that Roman did not commit the crime. Responding to Zagaja's questions, Lukas testified that a shoe print found at the crime scene did not match shoes belonging to Roman and that sperm found during an autopsy of Lopez was not Roman's.

The case was reopened in July 2008 when new evidence was unveiled by the state public defenders' Connecticut Innocence Project, which looks into potentially wrong convictions.

Authorities arrested Miranda at his home in December 2008 and charged him with the three killings as part of the cold case investigation.

Miranda, who is on the state's sex offender registry for a 1998 conviction for raping a 24-year-old woman in West Hartford, is also charged in the murders of 16-year-old Rosa Valentin in 1986 and 13-year-old Mayra Cruz in 1987. Authorities say all three killings were sexually motivated.

Lopez disappeared after leaving a family party in January 1988. She told her cousin that she was going to meet Roman, an arrest warrant said. Her body was found a few days later in a Hartford apartment where she had been house-sitting, authorities said. She was six months pregnant.

The warrant said Miranda, who was dating Lopez's cousin, knew from other family members that Lopez would be alone in the apartment, but denied any involvement in her death.

Roman was convicted of Lopez's death, despite an FBI investigator testifying that tests eliminated him as a suspect. The jury convicted him based on circumstantial evidence and witness testimony, authorities said.

The new DNA testing 20 years later on evidence found in the apartment excluded Roman as a suspect and eventually linked Miranda to the crime, authorities said.

Roman's daughter, Vanessa, appeared at the trial and dismissed the argument by defense lawyers that her father had committed the crime. She was 10 when her father was sent to prison.

"I was ready for that. They know where they went wrong," she said, referring to prosecutors.