Does DNA evidence prove Brian Rooney is a rapist and a killer? Or is the evidence unreliable? Those were the central questions Thursday in opening statements at Rooney's murder trial.
Eight witnesses took the stand; Michelle Gardner-Quinn's parents, her roommate, and several friends were among them.
"The truth is-- this is a simple case... That man-- Brian Rooney-- raped and murdered a young woman," Chittenden Deputy Prosecutor Matt Levine told the jury.
During opening statements, the state told jurors the evidence is indisputable. Rooney was the last person to see Michelle Gardner-Quinn alive and his DNA was found inside her body.
Cheryl Hanna of the Vermont Law School observed, "The prosecution's point was this is a simple case. There's nothing complicated about it and they seem to be following along with that point, not keeping witnesses up there long, not entering a lot of evidence, keeping it simple."
But Rooney's lawyers argue that the DNA evidence is inconclusive; nothing was found inside Rooney's car, and the DNA evidence found on her body was evaluated by a Vermont lab that has a history of making errors.
"This case is fraught with reasonable doubt. After 2:26 in the morning, there is no clear narrative, no clear picture, no certainty about what happened," defense lawyer David Sleigh told jurors.
Rooney's lawyers offered no other possible explanation as to what may have happened to Gardner-Quinn.
Rooney looked on as family and friends of Gardner-Quinn took the stand to talk about the woman they loved and the circumstances surrounding her death.
"She was one of the first people I met, so we pretty much did everything together," said Gardner-Quinn's friend, Julia Marten.
Both of Gardner-Quinn's parents testified that they were in town for parents weekend at UVM and became worried when their daughter didn't show up to meet them for the homecoming parade.
"This is not Michelle. This is not Michelle," Diane Gardner-Quinn said.
They also told jurors that they recognized their daughter on surveillance tape from that night, walking up Main Street with Rooney.
"There's no question in my mind it was Michelle. I know the way she walks," said her father, John Charles-Gardner.
Michelle Gardner-Quinn made several calls from Rooney's cell phone that night.
Friends believe she met Rooney by chance and asked to borrow his cell phone because her own phone battery had died.
Gardner-Quinn's longtime friend Tommy Lang actually spoke with Rooney on the phone that night and says Rooney had expressed interest in Michelle during their brief conversation.
"He said something to the effect of, I guess you wanted to speak to this beautiful brunette standing next to me," Lang testified.
Gardner-Quinn's father also called Rooney's phone number the next day. He says Rooney told him the two had parted ways after she borrowed his cell phone. He said she went to get a cab and that he never saw her again.
And before Thursday's proceedings even got underway, Rooney's lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the aggravated murder charge, which is the most serious charge in Vermont. They want to see the charge reduced to first-degree murder which carries a lesser penalty. The judge told the lawyers that's a matter that can be settled in the coming days.
Friday, jurors will hear forensic testimony and a taped audio interview police conducted with Rooney.
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