Defense, prosecution each call their own firearms experts in Andersen trial
Friday's testimony in the murder trial of rural Waubun resident Kenneth Andersen was highlighted by a pair of firearms experts -- one called by the prosecution, and one called by the defense.
Late Thursday afternoon, prosecutor Al Zdrazil had called to the stand a forensic scientist from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension crime lab in Bemidji. Nathaniel Pearlson noted at the beginning of his testimony that he specialized in firearms analysis.
On Friday, defense attorney Rory Durkin countered with a firearms expert of his own. Though the defense had not yet begun to present its case, Judge Peter Irvine -- with the agreement of Zdrazil and co-prosecutor Mike Fritz -- allowed Durkin to call Steven Howard out of order, because he had come all the way from Lansing, Mich., to testify.
Throughout Pearlson's testimony, both Thursday afternoon and when he was recalled to the stand Friday morning, Howard sat just behind Durkin and Andersen in the audience, listening intently and taking notes. Occasionally, he would consult with the defense attorney about those notes.
This prompted a member of the jury to ask the identity of the person who had apparently joined the defense team -- a question that prompted a stern reprimand from Judge Peter Irvine, who noted that jurors were not allowed to ask questions during testimony.
The following morning, Irvine addressed the jurors prior to the resumption of Pearlson's testimony. He noted that one of the jurors' primary tasks during this portion of the trial was to refrain from discussing the details of the case with anyone, inside or outside the courtroom, until testimony had concluded and deliberations had begun.
"You have been asked not to do that... to have no contact or discussion with anyone outside this courtroom about the case, under any circumstances," Irvine said, adding that there would be plenty of time to ask questions or discuss the details of the case after the jurors entered their deliberation.
It was then that audience members learned of the dismissal of a juror who had failed to follow that rule. Irvine did not disclose the identity of the juror, noting merely that he had been excused prior to Friday's proceedings.
Pearlson's testimony resumed without further incident. On Thursday, he had testified that the marks found on the bullets taken from Swedberg's body on the day of the murder were "consistent with" bullets that he had test fired from Andersen's Tikka 300 rifle -- believed to be the murder weapon -- at the Bemidji lab.
However, in a lengthy cross examination from Durkin, Pearlson also testified that there were several other weapons that could have produced the same markings, or class characteristics, if the same type of bullets were fired from it.
On Friday, Zdrazil asked Pearlson why he had used the term "consistent with" when describing whether the bullets recovered from Swedberg's body could have been fired from a Tikka rifle.
"I take a conservative approach (to analyzing firearms and ammunition)," Pearlson explained. "I leave a little bit of reservation there."
If at any point during his analysis he would see some observable characteristics that differed between the bullets pulled from the victim and the ones test fired from the rifle, then "it's not consistent anymore," he added.
He also explained the methodology that had prompted him to declare during Thursday's testimony that he felt the bullets pulled from Swedberg's body were "Winchester extreme ballistic silver tips" -- despite admitting that Durkin's assertion that these were not the only type of bullets that could have been fired from the Tikka's ammunition cartridge was correct.
In his examination of the bullets taken from Swedberg, Pearlson testified, he noticed that they were coated with black copper oxide.
"The only (bullet manufacturer) I am aware of that uses black copper oxide coating (on its bullets) is Winchester," Pearlson noted.
He then contacted Paul Szabo, a technical adviser from Winchester Olin to ask how many different types of bullets they manufactured with the same type of black coating as the bullets pulled from Swedberg.
Szabo sent him an e-mail containing images of five different types of bullets that could have been used. Upon examining the images, Pearlson was able to determine that all but one of them had at least one characteristic that would eliminate it as a possibility.
Thus, he determined that "the ballistic silver tip" was the type of bullet that had been used.
After Zdrazil was finished questioning Pearlson, Durkin then asked him a few more questions about the types of rifles other than the Tikka that might have been used to fire the same bullets.
"Isn't it true that every Winchester 30-30 and 300 Remington ultra mag have the same characteristics as the Tikka?" Durkin asked.
"I would never say every gun (of a particular make or series) shares exactly the same characteristics," Pearlson responded.
"Can you safely say that you're not sure (of the answer)?" Durkin asked.
"Yes," Pearlson responded.
"Then can you tell me which rifle, (loaded) with that round of ammunition, was fired in this case?" Durkin countered.
"No, I can not," Pearlson responded.
When Howard took the stand, he indicated that his experience in firearms was extensive, as he possessed an associate degree in gunsmithing, a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, and was a certified instructor in both firearms and advanced combat techniques. In addition, he was a lawyer currently practicing in the state of Michigan.
"I've testified as an expert witness in five states," he said, adding that his writings on gunshot residue, ballistics and shooting reconstruction had also been published in both national and local professional publications.
During his testimony, Howard noted that gun barrels using the particular rifling configuration found in Andersen's Tikka rifle were "probably the most common in the world," because that ocnfiguration is "easiest to manufacture, lasts the longest, and is the most economical."
He also noted that there were literally "hundreds of millions" of military rifles manufactured with that same configuration through the years, as well as "many, many" sporting rifles.
In his cross examination, Zdrazil asked, "how many of those hundreds of millions (of rifles) are still around?"
"It's impossible to say," Howard admitted.
"But it's fair to say that there's not a hundred million of them left?" Zdrazil countered.
"Yes," said Howard.
Zdrazil then asked if some of those rifles could be found in Florida, South Dakota, Canada, England, or even Mexico.
"It's illegal for a civilian to have a 30-caliber rifle in Mexico," Howard pointed out, prompting Zdrazil to ask drily whether he was asserting that there were no Mexican citizens in possession of an illegal weapon.
"No," Howard said.
"How many of those rifles are in Becker County?" asked Zdrazil.
"I don't know," Howard responded.
"How many in Mahnomen County?" Zdrazil continued.
"I have no idea," said Howard.
"Wadena County? Polk County?" asked the prosecutor.
"Same answer," said Howard.
In other words, the only way to tell the model and make of rifle used in the shooting would be "to find that rifle and fire a test round?"
"Yes, that's fair to say," Howard said.
Other witnesses called during Friday's proceedings included Shelly Marohl, who was a branch manager at Midwest Bank's Wal-Mart location in Detroit Lakes on April 19, 2007 -- the day Ken Andersen applied to open a checking account there, and discussed a funeral he had been at earlier in the day (i.e., Swedberg's); and Daniel Baumann, a special agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension who was assigned to investigate the Swedberg case.