CHRISTIANSBURG — On the fourth day of David Edmond Eisenhauer’s murder trial, his defense seemed to run into a one-two punch.
First, a key claim by his attorneys — that a bloody handprint proved another person was present when 13-year-old Nicole Madison Lovell was killed — was undone by an expert witness’ testimony.
Minutes later, prosecutors called Blacksburg Police Department Det. Deziree Twigger back to the witness stand and asked her to tell the jury about the cellphone she’d seized from Eisenhauer — and about the messages sent between Eisenhauer’s phone and that of Natalie Marie Keepers, who is charged with helping him kill Lovell.
That set off a stream of objections from Eisenhauer’s attorneys, then about 40 minutes of out-of-the-courtroom discussions — first between Eisenhauer and his lawyers, then between prosecution and defense, then finally, after prosecutors had emerged smiling, between Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Robert Turk and all the attorneys.
Eisenhauer, a 20-year-old from Columbia, Maryland, who is charged with first-degree murder, abduction and concealing a body, sat alone at the defense table as the attorneys talked. Sheriff’s deputies watched closely as Eisenhauer stared down at his yellow notepad and at the flexible pen that prisoners are given because it can’t be used as a weapon. Several family members stood in the back of the court’s spectator area, looking away.
When Turk returned, it was to send jurors home for the evening and to tell attorneys that whatever they wanted to say about the cellphones should be ready at 8:30 a.m. Friday.
Eisenhauer is finishing the first of what is scheduled to be two weeks of jury trial tied to the Jan. 27, 2016, death of Lovell.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Mary Pettitt said in an opening statement Tuesday that Eisenhauer, then a Virginia Tech student, killed the middle-schooler to conceal his relationship with her.
Defense attorney John Lichtenstein of Roanoke, who is representing Eisenhauer with four other attorneys, told jurors in his opening statement that they could not convict his client because there was too much doubt about what happened to Lovell. At the center of those doubts is the role of Keepers, he said.
Keepers, 20, of Laurel, Maryland, is set to start her own trial on Sept. 17 on charges of being an accessory before the fact to first-degree murder and to concealing a body. Lichtenstein said that she might have done more than the charges indicated.
In the opening statement, Lichtenstein held up a giant picture of a shovel taken from Eisenhauer’s car, with a bloody stain on the handle that Lichtenstein said was a handprint. The blood was Lovell’s and the handprint was Keepers’, Lichtenstein said — and the print could only have been made at the time of Lovell’s murder, while blood still was wet enough to make the mark, he said.
But on Thursday, that theory fell apart.
Pettitt called Cory Bartoe, a forensic scientist with the state crime lab in Roanoke, to testify about the array of finger prints he found on items connected to Lovell’s death.
A bloody container of cleaning wipes found in the trunk of Eisenhauer’s car bore Eisenhauer’s finger prints, Bartoe said. Another container of wipes in the back seat had Keepers’ prints.
A plastic Walmart bag containing a bottle of bleach cleaner, found in dumpsters at a Tech parking lot with bloody gloves and wipes, also had Keepers’ prints.
But the shovel with the bloody handprint? It had two fingerprints from Keepers, Bartoe testified — but they were not in the bloody area of the shovel handle. There was a third print of some sort in the blood but it was too incomplete to identify, Bartoe said.
In earlier testimony Thursday, Twigger walked jurors through photos of Keepers and Eisenhauer buying the shovel on the day before Lovell’s murder. In one still from the Christiansburg Walmart’s surveillance video, Keepers carried the shovel.
Other evidence presented Thursday included analysis of data from a GPS unit found in Eisenhauer’s car that tracked the Jan. 26, 2016, trip to the Christiansburg Walmart at the time the shovel was bought. Late that night, after other travel, the GPS analysis showed travel from Tech’s campus, where Eisenhauer kept his car, to Lovell’s neighborhood in the Lantern Ridge apartment complex, testified Deena Jones of the Blacksburg Police Department.
By 1:02 a.m. on Jan. 27, 2016, the GPS was on Craig Creek Road in Montgomery County, where prosecutors say that Lovell was killed.
Later on Jan. 27, the GPS unit tracked a trip from Tech back to Craig Creek Road, where prosecutors say Eisenhauer and Keepers picked up Lovell’s body, then to the Wytheville Walmart, where store surveillance footage and records showed the purchase of rubber gloves and cleaning supplies. The GPS logged a journey down Interstate 77 to the Galax area, then the Blue Ridge Parkway near the North Carolina line.
Lovell’s body was discovered just south of the state line, on a steep, wooded slope in Surry County, N.C.
Nicole Harold, a forensic science supervisor at the state crime lab, testified about the DNA testing of the many blood spatters found in the case. It was overwhelmingly likely that it was Lovell’s blood found in a clearing in the woods above Craig Creek Drive and on the pavement of the road itself, Harold said.
Similarly, tests found a very high probability that it was Lovell’s blood in the trunk and other areas of Eisenhauer’s car, and Lovell’s blue blanket decorated with a yellow Minion character found in bag inside a suitcase in Keepers’ dormitory closet, and on a stick and on the waistband of underpants found with the blanket, and on a brown knee-high boot taken from Keepers — and on the shovel handle, Harold said.
But it was Eisenhauer’s DNA that was found on fingernail clippings collected during an autopsy of the slain girl, Harold testified.
Defense attorney Tony Anderson of Roanoke questioned Harold closely about her testing. Told there was a vanishingly small probability that the DNA belonged to anyone but Eisenhauer, Anderson had a last question — whether Harold could say whether the DNA had been beneath or on top of the fingernails.
No, said Harold, she couldn’t.