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DNA on seized items matches Phillips and Wellman, expert tells St. John's court

Forensic DNA specialist Florence Celestin chats with a sheriff’s officer at Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in St. John’s Tuesday, during a break in her testimony at the murder trial of Brandon Phillips.
Forensic DNA specialist Florence Celestin chats with a sheriff’s officer at Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in St. John’s Tuesday, during a break in her testimony at the murder trial of Brandon Phillips. - Tara Bradbury

Forensic DNA expert testifies at Brandon Phillips’ murder trial in St. John’s

As forensic identification RNC officers processed the room in the Captain’s Quarters hotel where Larry Wellman was killed, DNA was on their minds. Wearing gloves, the two constables collected swabs of blood from the floor and catalogued items of interest, photographing, labelling and packaging them, and later sent them by courier to the RCMP’s national forensic lab in Ottawa.

At the lab, forensic DNA specialist Florence Celestin and her team were waiting to receive the parcel of evidence. In a tedious series of steps, they extracted, isolated, measured and examined DNA samples found on the items, comparing them to hair and blood samples taken from Wellman, 63, and blood samples provided by Brandon Phillips, now 29, who is accused of murdering him.

On Tuesday, those items — in sealed, clear plastic bags and bearing labels from both the RNC and the crime lab — were brought into Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in St. John’s. They were all things the 12 members of the jury at Phillips’ murder trial had seen before: a navy blue toque with rough eye holes cut into one side, a pair of black Nike Air Jordan sneakers, broken pieces of wood, a shotgun shell.

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This time, however, the jurors got acquainted with the items on a microscopic level, as Celestin presented her team’s DNA findings.

The sneakers, taken from the Quidi Vidi Road apartment where Phillips was arrested a week after the fatal shooting, were found to contain Wellman’s DNA on the heel tread of the right foot. Phillips’ DNA was found on the inside of the tongue of the right shoe and the tips of both laces. A third DNA profile was found on the tongue as well, though it was too insignificant to be examined.

The mask, found by police on the curb behind the Captain’s Quarters the day after the shooting, had Phillips’ DNA on the inside, both above and below the eye holes, Celestin said.

The shotgun shell had traces of two DNA profiles: the majority was that of Phillips, while a trace amount, with “insufficient genetic information,” Celestin explained, came from another source.

A piece of wood retrieved from the Captain’s Quarters and found by a firearms expert to have once been part of a Winchester 2200 12-gauge pump-action shotgun like the one police seized from the Quidi Vidi Road apartment, had Wellman’s DNA on it.

In the case of each item, DNA experts prepared a report with an estimated match probability. The likelihood that the DNA determined to match Wellman’s or Phillip’s actually belonged to someone else ranged from one in 4.9 billion (in the case of the wood) to one in 310 quintillion, in the case of the sneakers and mask.

“A quintillion is a one followed by 18 zeros,” Celestin elaborated.

Defence lawyers Jeff Brace and Mark Gruchy had no questions for Celestin when it was their turn to cross-examine her on her testimony.

Celestin was the 12th witness called by Crown prosecutors Shauna MacDonald and Mark Heerema to testify at Phillips’ trial. Four other witnesses — two more police officers, a paramedic and bartender Janet Hutchings, who was working at the Captain’s Quarters the night Wellman was shot — are expected to testify Wednesday and Thursday, after which the Crown will rest its case.

Brace and Gruchy say they expect to be finished with their witnesses next week. After that, the jury will deliberate.

Wellman was a patron at the bar in the Captain’s Quarters the night of Oct. 3, 2015, when a masked man armed with a shotgun entered and demanded money from Hutchings at the bar. Wellman attempted to stop the robbery and was shot. He died hours later in hospital.

 

Tara.bradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

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