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Second day of murder trial of Richmond woman focuses on DNA, cellphone evidence

Second day of murder trial of Richmond woman focuses on DNA, cellphone evidence
Posted at 9:23 PM, Nov 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-17 09:51:41-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- The prosecution rested its case in the trial of a Henrico County man accused of raping and murdering a VCU operations administrator in her South Richmond home in 2019.

Suzanne Fairman, 53, was found the night of May 9, 2019, in her home on Tanglewood Road submerged in a bathtub with running water. A knife, bandana, glove and iPhone cord that had been knotted and cut were found on the sink.

Thomas E. Clark was arrested a week after she was found on unrelated charges and was later indicted by a grand jury on murder, rape and abduction charges.

Prosecutors said Clark had done yard work at the home and had previously been a part of a crew that had done work staining Fairman's deck, but the work was unsatisfactory and they had to come back and redo it.

Prosecutors alleged that Clark held Fairman at knifepoint, bond her wrists, raped her and then strangled her to death.

Prosecutors called a total of 14 witnesses to the stand and recalled several. While day one of the trial saw testimony from Fairman's family members, including her son and some of the first police to respond to the scene on May 9, the majority of the those who testified on day two were experts involved in the investigation afterward to piece together what allegedly happened.

The first witness was the medical examiner who handled Fairman's body after it was discovered and the autopsy a few hours later. In court, she described the damage to Fairman's neck and said the cause of death was asphyxia due to strangulation and ruled it a homicide. She also noted that Fairman's wrists had markings consistent with being bound.

The medical examiner also went into detail about how and where she took DNA swabs from Fairman, with prosecutors stressing what steps are taken to ensure no potential contamination of the evidence. During the defense's opening remarks they had raised the possibility of DNA contamination -- but seemed to be referring to the items that were found on the sink.

The medical examiner also gave a window of when Fairman could have died, noting in court that in real life her profession is not able to pinpoint an exact time of death. She said based on when rigor mortis set in, there was under a 48-hour window between 2:30 a.m. on May 8, 2019, and 6:30 p.m. on May 9, 2019. The inability to pinpoint a more exact time was mentioned by the defense attorney during cross-examination.

Four different witnesses took to the stand to testify to the analysis run on the various DNA samples taken from the items found in the bathroom, blood found in the bedroom and from Fairman. They described the different types of DNA tests and how, while people can be eliminated from having contributed to a DNA sample, they never definitely say if someone is responsible for one. Instead, they say they cannot rule out or eliminate them as a contributor to the sample.

While the experts testified that some samples were not viable, they were unable to eliminate Clark's DNA from several samples including those taken from the handle of the knife, the bandana (on two different samples) and Fairman's underwear.

On cross-examination regarding the items found on the sink, the experts did agree with the defense attorney's questions that cross-contamination between items could occur if they were bundled together. The defense attorney said in his opening statement that Clark had admitted to leaving the bandana at the home from when he did work there.

Several experts also testified to analysis conducted on cellphones belonging to Fairman and Clark, seemingly trying to establish when Fairman was last known to be alive and when Clark could have been at her home during the 48-hour window the medical examiner said her death had occurred.

One analyst testified that the last messages that Fairman responded to on her phone or laptop were after 6 p.m. May 8.

An FBI Special Agent who specializes in cellphone data analysis showed the juror his report on the cellphones of the two and demonstrated how each had what he called a "home tower", which is the cellphone tower that a cellphone uses most frequently to make or receive calls, text or data.

The agent testified that during several dates in April, Clark's phone was using the tower associated with Fairman's home and was the month that Fairman's son testified they were at the house doing work on the deck.

Then the analysts said there were two occasions in May. On May 3 during midday and then between 3:21 p.m. and 5:18 p.m. on May 9.

During cross-examination, the defense had the agent confirm the locations were only approximations and they had no way of knowing who was in possession of the phone during these times. On the latter point, there was a police interview tape that was aired during which Clark said he had his phone with him at all times except for when he allowed another person at his home to use it.

Throughout the testimony prosecutors also interviewed witnesses and revealed evidence that seemed to question what and how Clark knew some details about the case, including mentioning the temperature of the water that Fairman was found in during interviews with police and in phone recordings from the Richmond jail, a detail police say they never told Clark about.

Clark's defense attorney did not indicate to CBS 6 how many witnesses he intended to call, including if Clark will take to the stand in his own defense.

The trial is expected to resume shortly after 9 a.m.