About a half-hour after a hearing began Thursday in a St. Paul courtroom, the door swung open and family members of Barbara (Bobbi) Winn streamed in and in and in. Soon, at least four dozen people had squeezed into the benches.

They have waited nearly 27 years for a case in her death to come to court, and now Ramsey County District Judge Edward Cleary was hearing arguments about dismissing the murder case against Aaron W. Foster and suppressing evidence and statements.

Foster, now 56, argued with Winn at several spots on the night of May 7, 1981, then returned to the Maplewood townhouse they shared and began packing his things to move out. When Winn came home, the argument continued.

Foster insists that Winn shot herself with his gun. Winn's family, including her children, who were there that night, have maintained since her death that Foster killed her.

Prosecutors declined to charge Foster in 1981, citing insufficient evidence. The case had political overtones when it was reopened in 2006 by the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office during a contentious election race between Sheriff Bob Fletcher and former St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney, a close friend and ally of Foster. A grand jury indicted Foster on charges of third-degree murder last November.

In the years between the two investigations, however, physical evidence in the case, such as clothing, fingernail clippings and items found at the scene, was lost or destroyed.

Defense attorney Earl Gray argued Thursday that authorities were "culpably negligent" in failing to preserve the evidence amounted to its "intentional" destruction.

Gray also argued that statements Foster made the night of Winn's death should be suppressed because officers did not read him his Miranda rights, and that a search of his person was unlawful. Prosecutor Deidre Aanstad contended that Foster wasn't in custody when he made those statements and he simply emptied his pockets when an officer asked him to.

The court also heard testimony from a blood-spatter expert, and three retired Maplewood police officers who investigated the case. Prosecutors are expected to call at least one more witness when the hearing continues Monday.

During a lunch recess, Winn's children, grandchildren, siblings, cousins and a few family friends gathered in the courthouse lobby to speak to a producer and correspondent for NBC-TV's "Dateline," which plans to air an hourlong program on the case sometime this spring.

Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551