Defense calls first witness in Kristin Smart murder trial

Posted at 1:17 PM, September 22, 2022 and last updated 3:49 PM, July 24, 2023

By Richard Gearhart

SALINAS, Calif. (KSBY) — After the prosecution rested Tuesday in the Kristin Smart murder trial, it’s now the defense’s turn to call witnesses to the stand.

First up was a professor and forensic scientist who also looked at evidence collected from under the deck of Ruben Flores’ Arroyo Grande home.

Kristin Smart/NamUs

Dr. David Carter, a professor at Chaminade University in Hawaii, has spent the past 20 years studying what happens to bodies after death.

He’s an expert in forensic taphonomy, not just decomposition but other postmortem outcomes as well, like mummification.

Paul Flores’ attorney, Robert Sanger, contacted Dr. Carter and asked him to look at evidence and photographs collected by investigators from under Ruben’s deck in March and April of 2021.

Sanger asked if he saw any evidence that a body had ever been buried there. Dr. Carter said he saw no evidence in the photographs. Sanger also asked him what typically happens when a body decomposes and how much fluid would be released.

Dr. Carter told jurors that it can be difficult to talk about or hear about what happens after death, but decomposing bodies are “messy” and he would expect see what he calls “artifacts” in the area, like bones, hair or teeth, all of which take a very long time to breakdown.

Dr. Carter said typically clothing or other non-biological items remain as well.

Sanger asked Dr. Carter if he’d requested or seen any of the soil samples personally. Dr. Carter said he’s requested them but has not been given access to them or seen them in person.

During cross examination, San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney Christopher Peuvrelle asked how long Dr. Carter has been in California and if he’d gone to the Arroyo Grande home in person.

Dr. Carter said he arrived on Monday and had not been to the site. Peuvrelle also asked if a body had been dug back up and removed, would he still expect to see those types of “artifacts?”

Dr. Carter admitted those could have been dug up and removed as well.

This combination photo shows suspects Paul Flores (L) and Ruben Flores (R), who were arrested Tuesday, April 13, 2021, for the murder of Kristin Smart. Flores, the longtime suspect in the 25-year-old disappearance of the California college student was arrested Tuesday, April 13, 2021, on suspicion of murder, and his father was booked in jail as an accessory to the crime. Flores, 44, who was the last person seen with Smart on the California Polytechnic State University campus in San Luis Obispo before she vanished in 1996, was taken into custody in the Los Angeles area. (San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

During questioning, a lot was made of the staining found in the soil. When questioned by Sanger, Dr. Carter said it appeared most likely to be naturally-occurring discoloration found in sandy soil, but when pressed by Peuvrelle, he said bodies do typically leave darker stains in the soil often in an egg or oval shape, sometimes even creating an outline of the body.

It also came out during testimony Wednesday that most of Dr. carter’s research had been done on non-human decomposition including sheep, rats and pigs, but he does have more recent experience with a research program where bodies are donated for the specific purpose of studying human decomposition.

Dr. Carter was also asked if he was being paid for his testimony. He told the court the defense team offered to pay him, but he declined, saying he felt like this is part of his job as a professor, to offer up expertise to the broader community. He said the defense team only paid for his travel and hotel expenses.

Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, a forensic scientist in private practice, took the witness stand.

Defense attorney Robert Sanger asked her several questions about the validity of the test that detected blood in the soil under Ruben Flores’ deck. She said that the test isn’t designed to detect blood in soil and there are multiple studies that show blood is too degraded by the elements to be detected after about four weeks.

Dr. Johnson is expected to return for cross-examination on Thursday.

Also on Wednesday, a juror who was reportedly seen chatting with a witness during lunch was called in to speak with the judge. She was asked to refrain from talking to anyone about the case in the future.

Later, two other jurors were called in to talk to the judge. One was complaining about another juror laughing during testimony and making fun of the attorneys in the case. The judge questioned both of them about their ability to continue to be fair and impartial. She has decided to allow all three jurors to stay on the case.

Paul and Ruben Flores are on trial for the murder of Cal Poly student Kristin Smart, who was a 19-year-old freshman when she disappeared from the Cal Poly campus in May 1996.

While her body has never been found, she was declared legally dead in 2002.

Paul is charged with her murder. His father, Ruben, is charged as an accessory, accused of helping cover up the crime.

The trial was moved out of San Luis Obispo and is taking place in Salinas. It was expected to last into October, but the judge has indicated things are moving along ahead of schedule.

This story was originally published Sept. 22, 2022 by KSBY in Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo, an E.W. Scripps Company.