The trial of a Mastic man for the uncommonly violent rape and killing of a young Medford mother begins this week, with Suffolk prosecutors insisting their case remains strong despite a series of law enforcement missteps.
Prosecutors say the defendant, Dante Taylor, 20, not only left his DNA in Sarah Goode’s body and his palm print in her blood on her abandoned BMW, but cellphone records showed him in her proximity before she disappeared after a party in the early hours of June 7, 2014.
But an unusual series of law enforcement stumbles have changed the complexion of the case, before state Supreme Court Justice John Collins in Riverhead. Taylor is charged with first-degree murder and faces a maximum of life in prison without parole if convicted.
During jury selection last week, Assistant District Attorney Janet Albertson warned potential jurors that they were in for a rough few weeks. Goode, 21, was stabbed more than 40 times in her head, torso and legs. Her car was covered in blood.
“You’re going to see and you’re going to hear some very gruesome testimony,” Albertson told potential jurors. “It will be disturbing.”
The most compelling evidence points to Taylor, Albertson has said. The last person to contact her by phone was Taylor, whom she’d met earlier that night at a party. His semen was found in her body, officials said.
Defense attorney John Lewis Jr. of Farmingdale warned potential jurors not to jump to conclusions and not to blindly believe anything that forensic scientists and detectives say.
“I’m worried about you accepting it without deliberation,” Lewis said. He hinted at the troubled nature of the investigation when he asked potential jurors if it is “possible for a police officer to not follow the rules in order to get a desired result.”
Lewis has said police and prosecutors broke the rules several times in this case, and Collins has agreed. Examples include:
— Not disclosing to the defense that Goode family members searching at the Smith Point Park marina had found leggings similar to what Goode was wearing when she was last seen. Her partially decomposed body was found naked from the waist down days after she was killed.
— Arresting and interrogating Taylor on June 10 without advising him of his rights, which led Collins to rule that statements, fingerprints and DNA collected as a result of that arrest would be inadmissible at trial. Taylor was arrested the following month and fingerprints and DNA from that arrest can be used.
— Failing to turn over to the defense Crime Stoppers tips pointing to several other suspects, in violation of what is known as the Brady rule, the judge found. That rule generally requires prosecutors to turn over evidence favorable to the defense as soon as law enforcement has it.
— Destroying a threatening voicemail message from one of those suspects on Goode’s cellphone, also a Brady rule violation, Collins decided.
Collins ruled that Lewis will be able to use some of these missteps in his defense, even though such evidence normally would not be admissible.
Before jury selection began, Lewis told Collins he was concerned about a campaign by Goode’s family on Facebook to “flood” the courthouse and its parking lot with supporters and placards demanding a conviction and maximum sentence.
Albertson said she’d spoken to the family “specifically about obeying rules of the court,” which are designed to prevent jurors from being intimidated or manipulated.
Collins said he expected no problems.
“To date, both families have behaved themselves very well, despite the stakes, and I hope that continues,” he said. “We are going to try this case based on the evidence and do our best to keep inflammatory material away from the jury.”
Even without outside influence, there has been plenty of courtroom friction already in this case.
Lewis, who rarely practices in Suffolk, has expressed disdain for what he calls a corrupt law enforcement establishment and a meek defense bar that he says has failed to hold police and prosecutors accountable.
Albertson, chief of the district attorney’s Homicide Bureau, has prosecuted many of Suffolk’s more notorious killers, including Daniel Pelosi and Kalila Taylor. Her biting courtroom arguments are well-known in the courthouse, and in this case she has argued that evidence the defense has sought is irrelevant.