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Prosecutors in the homicide trial of Stephen Robert Falkenberg concluded witness testimony Wednesday with forensic evidence and autopsy photos, and the defense began to lay out its case.
Falkenberg is currently on trial for killing Tamara LaFramboise of Yankton on March 1 last year in her apartment. Some of her dismembered remains were found in Michigan two weeks later. Her head, hands and feet were dumped separately and have never been recovered.
Falkenberg faces a charge of second-degree murder and one of first-degree manslaughter. Both charges carry a penalty of life in prison.
The third day of testimony in Yankton began with a Sioux Falls orthopedic surgeon, Richard Blake Curd, who used his expertise to analyze X-rays of Falkenberg’s right hand after LaFramboises’s death. Several witnesses that saw him later on March 1 testified that his right hand was swollen enough that, in at least one instance, he used his left hand to sign for a purchase.
The break, Curd said, was caused by a focused force hitting Falkenberg’s closed or partial fist in a perpendicular manner. The middle and ring finger of the metacarpals, the bones in the palms of the hand, were hit with enough force to push them down on to the metacarpals the way ice cream can be pushed down into a cone, Curd said.
Such injuries are not uncommon in boxers and fighters, he said.
According to Curd, Falkenberg told medical personnel on one occasion that he injured his hand punching an icicle. The other visit recorded the cause of the injury as a fall.
Prosecutors asked if punching an icicle or a fall would explain the injury. Curd said it would depend on the icicle. An icicle descending from a roof-gutter downspout mould could be a possibility, but that the narrow area of the injury was more consistent with a punch to the chin, cheek or orbital bone of another person. A fall would likely have damaged the bones in the fingers, he said.
When cross-examined by the defense, Curd conceded that the two different recorded causes could have been the result of error in the records and did not necessarily mean that Falkenberg had told two different stories.
The forensic pathologist who examined LaFramboise’s remains, Adam Covach, chief medical examiner for Fond Du Lac County, Michigan, testified as to the condition and identification of the body and conclusions about LaFramboise’s death drawn in the autopsy report.
An external exam, Covach said, was conducted on March 16. The body was allowed to thaw, and 24 hours later, he performed an internal exam. Blood oozing from the stumps left behind from her dismemberment indicated that she had been dismembered after being frozen. The fact the there was so much blood still in the body indicated that she had not lost very much blood at the time of her death.
There was no evidence of trauma to LaFramboise’s remains and her heart and organs were in excellent health, Covach said. The fact that she was dismembered and dumped required Covach to determine the cause of death as homicide by unspecified means.
The defense was particularly interested in the levels of methamphetamine in LaFramboise’s blood at the time of her death. LaFramboise had struggled with substance abuse, particularly methamphetamine, for the last few years.
The toxicology report showed that she had 350 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml) of methamphetamine in her blood. Covach said that amount could cause an overdose, Specifically, it could cause cardiac arrhythmia, which could not be traced; a stroke or a brain aneurysm.
However, that amount typically would only kill a person weakened by heart and blood pressure issues. Most overdoses of methamphetamine will have 1,000 ng/ml-7,000 ng/ml in the bloodstream.
“The autopsy did not discover the cause of death with the part of the body I got to examine,” Covach said.
When asked if having the head and other missing body parts would have aided in determining if a stroke or aneurysm had caused LaFramboise’s death, Covach replied, “It would have helped.”
The defense continued with witnesses who showed that LaFramboise was on probation for her drug use and had violated that probation more than once.
Details of her June 7, 2016, arrest were presented by Brandon Frey, a Yankton police officer. LaFramboise was “intoxicated and out of control,” Frey said, when he was called to the Rounding Third Bar and she was being restrained by two people.
She made death threats against the officers and was arrested. She tried to kick out the glass of the squad car and would not give a urine analysis. According to the police report, a urinalysis was obtained without her cooperation via catheter at Lewis & Clark Specialty Hospital.
Frey said she was intoxicated and out of control the whole time, and that it took four officers to hold her down for medical personnel.
LaFramboise was arrested on drug charges and assault-related charges. The assault charges were later dropped, according to court documents.
A needle found in her possession later tested positive for methamphetamine, Frey said.
In another incident, LaFramboise was arrested after damaging a man’s truck with a garden hoe, smashing the windshield. The charge was later dropped, according to court documents.
The defense also introduced and showed several videos of Falkenberg and LaFramboise interacting on the jail telephone system during his visits. At one point, LaFramboise asked Falkenberg to let her hear what her attorney was saying on speaker, but Falkenberg spoke to the attorney without the speaker on and held the phone away so LaFramboise could not hear the conversation.
In another instance, she asked Falkenberg to take her debit card and put money on her phone so she could make calls for herself from inside the jail. He said he would need the PIN code, if she trusted him. She said she didn’t trust anyone, and asked if he would do what she asked. He did not give a clear answer and continued asking for the code.
The video ended abruptly as time ran out. LaFramboise, it seemed, did not give him the code.
Several people testified Tuesday and Wednesday about Falkenberg’s laid-back, non-violent attitude.
However, in one of the video clips shown Wednesday, LaFramboise is shown rubbing her right hip and saying that it “still” hurt.
“Steve, you’ve got to stop pushing me,” she is heard saying.
The trial continues today (Thursday).