Firearms, crime scene analysts testify in Yakutat homicide trial

Robert Shem

Prosecutor James Fayette (left) helps forensic firearms examiner Robert Shem show the jury results of shotgun test firings. From left to right, they show decreasing amounts of soot and gunpowder particles as the muzzle is moved further away from the target. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Experts in firearms and crime scene analysis say the shotgun blast that killed Sandra Perry likely came from only a few feet away at her bedside.

Robert Kowalski faces charges of first- and second-degree murder in connection with her July 1996 death at Yakutat’s Glacier Bear Lodge. Day nine of the trial in Juneau Superior Court started on Thursday without the drama and apparent acrimony that colored previous days’ sessions.

Robert Shem, a forensic firearm and toolmark examiner with the Alaska State Crime Laboratory, resumed testimony Thursday morning on pictures of lab test firings of the shotgun that killed Perry.

Based on soot and gunpowder dispersion patterns at different distances, Shem concluded the shotgun was within a few feet of the victim when it went off, but not actually touching her

“The inside range would be greater than contact,” Shem testified. “In other words, not at contact, but somewhat greater and then a little bit closer. And somewhere between 18- and 24-inches when I would expect gunpowder tattooing to drop off.”

Jurors will no doubt compare those test photographs to ones of Perry’s body at the scene that show signs of stippling, or gunpowder and soot injuries on her upper chest.

Kowalski’s defense objected to the introduction of the test target pictures on Wednesday.

William Gifford, retired captain of detectives for the Anchorage Police Department and former cold case investigator for the Alaska State Troopers, was called to the stand as an expert for crime scene reconstruction and blood spatter analysis. His testimony took up most of Thursday’s proceedings. He started working on the Perry case in 2010, largely sparked by Kowalski’s earlier conviction in the death of Lorraine Kay Morin in Montana in 2008.

“This was the first case that I picked up,” Gifford said.

William Gifford

Cold case investigator William Gifford points to a hand-drawn diagram of the lodge room under cross examination by public defender Eric Hedland (back to camera) as defendant Robert Kowalski (left) listens. (Photo by Matt Miller/KTOO)

Gifford testified that an injury on Perry’s lower left chest was consistent with an abrasion and blunt force trauma caused by a shotgun muzzle.

Gifford described a visit to Room 10 of the Glacier Bear Lodge in February 2011, where Perry died 14 years earlier. The bed frames and legs were different, but the original dresser and lamp stand were still in the room. Gifford described repositioning the furniture, finding identical bed frames nearby in the lodge to reconstruct the scene, and taking additional measurements of the entire room in March 2011.

Based on analysis of photos taken in 1996 and the gunpowder, soot, and blood at the scene, Gifford testified that Perry was lying in the bed closest to the window wall with her right arm up across her chest and a cigarette lighter in her right hand. Gifford believes that Kowalski fired the shotgun when he was in between the two beds, midway between each bed’s head and foot.

Under cross examination by public defender Eric Hedland, Gifford admitted it was possible to stumble over the slightly protruding bed frame wheels and shoot the victim from the foot of the bed. But the angle of the shot would not be correct according to Gifford’s analysis of the crime scene.

“Direction of the soot doesn’t allow for that. Direction of the material on the wall does not allow for that,” Gifford testified. “If Mr. Kowalski fell from the foot of the bed, when he falls down, he’s going to be laying on the bed. Not even practical to think that he then picks up the gun and shoots her in the head from that position.”

Attorneys were congenial and even-tempered Thursday, in contrast with the interruptions and outbursts that dominated trial proceedings earlier this week.