The case against Jeffery Trevino, who goes on trial Monday on charges that he killed his wife, relies on circumstantial evidence, leaving the defense room to introduce alternative theories to explain why she ended up dead in the Mississippi River.
That’s the view of many veteran defense attorneys, who point to aspects of the high-profile Kira Steger case as helpful to a defense trying to cast doubt on the evidence.
“Copious amounts” of blood evidence was recovered from the St. Paul home Trevino, 39, rented with Steger, 30, police say. But no one is known to have witnessed or overheard an attack on Steger or someone dumping her body, which is likely to play in the defense’s favor.
“Typically, in a homicide case, what you’re trying to do is blame someone else,” Joseph Daly, emeritus professor at Hamline University’s School of Law, said of defense strategy.
Trevino is charged in Ramsey County District Court with two counts of second-degree murder for allegedly killing Steger. The case captured local and national attention when Steger failed to show up for work on Feb. 22 at Delia’s, a clothing retailer at the Mall of America where she was co-manager.
Her body was found May 8 in the river in downtown St. Paul, so badly decomposed that dental records were used to identify her.
Trevino will be the first man to stand trial in a string of high-profile attacks in Minnesota on women this year that include at least one other woman allegedly killed and dumped by a jilted lover — Mandy Matula, who remains missing.
Steger is among the 31 women, men and bystanders killed in Minnesota so far this year in domestic homicides, said Liz Richards, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women.
In 2012, a total of 18 Minnesotans died in domestic homicides, an unusually low figure. In 2011, that total was 34.
Steger’s family members and friends have said she was trying to leave Trevino, and divorce papers were found in her abandoned car.
The attorneys’ burdens
Circumstantial evidence carries as much weight as direct evidence in the eyes of the law, but it allows the defense more wiggle room. Jurors have to infer that a crime took place based on circumstantial evidence, while direct evidence typically relies on a witness seeing or hearing the crime take place.
Assistant Ramsey County attorneys Richard Dusterhoft and Andrew Johnson must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Trevino killed Steger. Trevino’s attorney, John Conard, only has to raise reasonable doubt; he doesn’t have to prove that someone else committed the crime.
Veteran defense attorneys said Conard has two good options: a roommate who was home the last night Steger was seen alive, Feb. 21, and a Maple Grove man to whom she was romantically linked. (The Maple Grove man was in South Dakota at the time, but texted her on Feb. 21.)
“There’s a guy in the basement. There’s a boyfriend. It seems like a case you could try and could win,” veteran defense attorney Earl Gray said.
Police have not identified the roommate or Maple Grove man as suspects. The roommate told police that although he was home and saw Steger and Trevino about 9 or 10 p.m., he did not hear or see an attack. A family friend of Steger has said that the roommate lived in the basement under the master bedroom, where authorities said they found much of the blood evidence and “a large stain in the shape of a human head and torso.”
Conard has said that authorities’ depiction of the alleged crime scene inside the house in the 500 block of Iowa Avenue E. is false, and that forensic evidence will play a key role in his defense. He declined to elaborate.
Defense attorney Joe Friedberg said that although at first blush the blood evidence appears to be “very difficult” to challenge, it is not a slam-dunk for the prosecution.
“Remember, since the advent of [the series of TV shows] ‘CSI’ and so forth, jurors many times go looking for a quality of proof that a prosecutor may not have,” Friedberg said. “Jurors tend to think that you put the evidence in a machine and it comes out as guilty.”
Authorities have surveillance video and GPS data showing someone matching Trevino’s description dropping off Steger’s car at a mall ramp on Feb. 22 and then taking a taxi to the couple’s block, but there’s too much missing evidence regarding how Steger ended up in the river, said Murad Mohammad, who has defended a number of high-profile cases in Ramsey County.
“It’s really hard to kill a person without neighbors or a roommate hearing anything,” Mohammad said. “Then it gets even harder to remove that body, take that body out of the home, put the body in a car, drive that person … and dispose of that body without anyone seeing it, without surveillance cameras capturing that.
“That’s a huge hole for the prosecution to get over.”
Jury selection is scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, with opening statements and testimony possibly starting Wednesday.