BILLINGS — Prosecutors showed jury members DNA evidence found in fingernail clippings allegedly connecting Diego Hernandez to the murder of Lori Bray, during the third day of proceedings in Yellowstone County District Court Judge Michael Moses's courtroom on Wednesday.
Hernandez, 24 years old, from Laurel, has pleaded not guilty to one count of deliberate homicide. Court documents state that Bray, 54, also of Laurel, gave Hernandez a ride home after closing up at her workplace, the Cedar Ridge Casino in Laurel on the night of October 1, 2019. Her body was found the next day in a ditch near Yard Office Road and Ridge Drive in Laurel.
Jurors heard expert witness testimony from Lacey Van Grinsven, a serologist who has worked at the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula for 15 years. Her primary job is to look for blood or semen on items of evidence.
Grinsven testified she examined 13 items of evidence, including Bray's jeans, sweatshirt and panties in a twice-peer reviewed report filed Oct. 23, 2019. Also included in the report was the leather seat cover from the back seat of Bray's 2003 Chrysler sedan. Grinsven said she identified blood stains covering more than half of the seat cover.
Bray's jeans had blood stains on the interior front and interior back of the jeans, Grinsven said. Grinsven also separately analyzed two vials of fingernail clippings from both of Bray's hands, which both had traces of blood and debris. Grinsven said she also looked at swab samples taken from Bray's face, neck, upper and lower body. No semen was found in any swab samples, but blood was found on other parts of Bray's body, Grinsven said.
A sexual assault kit was used forensically on Bray. Grinsven testified she found blood in Bray's vagina and rectum, but there was no semen detected in either location. When questioned by sheriff's deputies four days after Bray's death, Hernandez had scratch marks on his face.
During cross examination, Hernandez's defense attorneys questioned Grinsven about the report peer review process and the information she knows about the supposed crime while doing the tests. Grinsven said she sees police reports about the crime, giving her insight into a suspect's identity and the police investigation. Defense attorneys called into question the peer review process, in which the reviewer doesn't rerun the test, they rather verify that the correct procedures were followed.
Next to the witness stand was Joseph Pasternak, Montana State Crime Lab DNA supervisor and tech leader. He said he's been with the state crime lab for 15 years and worked 1,000-plus cases. Pasternak presented DNA analysis that allegedly connected Hernandez to Bray's murder.
Pasternak said DNA was found on Bray's sweatshirt and fingernail clippings from both hands that about a 1 in 60 octillion chance of matching a Hispanic person other than Hernandez. An octillion is a 1 followed by 27 zeroes.
Yellowstone County Sheriff's Detective Sgt. Frank Fritz was next to testify to the jury. Fritz was promoted to sergeant after Bray's case was opened, but he said he's investigated about 20 homicides in his career.
Fritz took the jury through crime scene photos he took of Bray's body, where it was found and her vehicle.
On October 2, 2019, the day after Bray's death, Fritz was made aware of casino security camera footage showing Hernandez leaving with Bray. At this time, Bray's car had also been located and placed into evidence. Fritz passed the suspect info on to patrol deputies, worked the rest of his shift, and went home at his regular time of 4 p.m.
Later that night at 6 p.m., Fritz was made aware by colleagues that Bray's body had been found. Fritz and three other sheriff's detectives got to the scene around 7 p.m. as night was starting to fall. Fritz said deputies secured the scene to leave it overnight and placed a shroud on the body to protect evidence so a full investigation could be done in the morning.
Fritz said the evidence points to Bray's body being slid or rolled down the hillside and she didn't get there under her own power. Detectives found dirt and debris in Bray's hair, along with abrasions on Bray's stomach, and legs that had no bruising, indicating the wounds happened after she died, Fritz said. Fritz said he also found very little blood around Bray's body at the bottom of the hill. One footprint was found at the top of the hill, and no others leading to her body.
Bray's body had many other injuries that Fritz said happened before she died, based on swelling and bruising seen around the injuries. Detectives found bruising on her head, blood in her nose, blood in her hair, swelling around both eyes, bruising on her forehead and a fat bottom lip.
Detectives also noted a blue band aid could be seen on one of Bray's hands, which was consistent with the casino security camera footage taken last time Bray was seen alive.
On October 10, 2019, he medical examiner determined Bray's cause of death was strangulation.
After the body was handed to the coroner on Oct. 3, Fritz obtained a search warrant to investigate Bray's car. Fritz said detectives speculated the murder happened where Bray's body was found, but as they dug deeper into the car, it became apparent to detectives the crime took place inside the car.
Detectives noted the handle for the blinker was broken off, and mud was found on the nob of the radio. Bray's clothes were scattered throughout the car, with one of her socks found on the front passenger floorboard and the other found in the back seat.
In the rear driver's side seat and floorboard, detectives found two bags or purses owned by Bray, along with her pants, jacket, panties, and bra.