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Attorneys reach evidence in Perry trial that led to charging the transgender woman with murder

UPDATED: Tue., June 20, 2017

Deputies place handcuffs on Donna R. Perry, 65, on June 5, 2017, at the beginning of her triple murder trial. Perry faces three counts of first-degree murder in connection with the killings of three women in 1990. (Thomas Clouse / SR)
Deputies place handcuffs on Donna R. Perry, 65, on June 5, 2017, at the beginning of her triple murder trial. Perry faces three counts of first-degree murder in connection with the killings of three women in 1990. (Thomas Clouse / SR)

Attorneys have spent a week questioning retired police detectives, reviewing lost evidence and recounting raids that netted guns not connected to the killings of three women in 1990. But on Tuesday, prosecutors brought the fingerprint and DNA evidence that is the crux of the serial killer case against a transgender woman.

The triple murder trial of Donna R. Perry, 65, reached the point where witnesses began talking of the decades-old evidence that prompted prosecutors in 2014 to charge Perry with the killings of Yolanda A. Sapp, Nickie I. Lowe and Kathleen A. Brisbois.

The three women knew each other and lived in the same motel off of East Sprague Avenue, which has been Spokane’s traditional working zone for prostitutes.

Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Rachel Curtis called forensic fingerprint specialists who testified about how they matched a fingerprint found on a bottle of lubricant in 1990 to Perry.

Julie Brownfield, who has worked for the forensic unit of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office for nearly 35 years, testified about the difficulties of finding trace evidence and fingerprints, which are invisible to the human eye, at crime scenes.

“A whole lot has to happen right,” she said. Fingerprints disappear “instantly if someone washes the surface or if it’s really hot outside. All conditions have to be exactly right to have a good print left behind.”

But those conditions were met on the smooth surface of a lubricant bottle that prosecutors claim was owned by Lowe, 34. Her body was found under the Greene Street Bridge on March 25, 1990. The fingerprint languished for years until 2012 when forensic experts found a match with Perry’s index finger.

But defense attorneys Bryan Whittaker and Pat Donahue have argued that the bottle does little to connect Perry to the killing of Lowe. The bottle was found in a dumpster more than a mile from where Lowe’s body was found. They previously argued that the fingerprint only shows that Perry frequented the area.

The fingerprint evidence followed last week, which included several police witnesses who explained the work to process the crime scenes and the months of work that ended without finding a suspect.

Spokane police Sgt. Kip Hollenbeck also took the stand and explained to the jury why much of the evidence gathered in the Yolanda Sapp investigation was accidentally incinerated. Sapp, 26, was found March 22, 1990, near 4100 E. Upriver Drive.

However, the DNA evidence on a flower-print blanket that was found near her body was preserved. It was that DNA evidence that came back as a match to Perry, who was Douglas R. Perry until 2000 when she traveled to Thailand for gender reassignment surgery.

Retired forensic unit manager Carrie Christen also added intrigue when she testified about an intact fingerprint found on a plastic bag lying next to the body of Kathy Brisbois, whose body was found along the Spokane River near Trent Avenue and Pines Road on May 15, 1990.

Asked by attorneys if a match has ever been found to that fingerprint, Christen answered: “No.”

Prosecutors are expected on Wednesday to call on Spokane police Detective Mark Burbridge and sheriff’s Detective James Dresback about the taped interview they conducted with Perry in which they confront her about the 1990 killings.

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