Bail hearing

Defendent Matthew Dusseault, 22, center, stands before Superior Court Magistrate Richard Raspallo with his defense attorneys Michael Lepizarra, left, and Kevin Salvaggio at the start of his bail hearing in Courtroom 9 in Providence Tuesday.

PROVIDENCE -- On the final day of a bail hearing for Matthew Dusseault, the man accused in the brutal stabbing death of 81-year-old Constance Gauthier of Woonsocket, lawyers sparred over the strength of the DNA evidence that state prosecutors say put the defendant's biological signature on the 2016 homicide.

Arguing before Superior Court Magistrate Richard Raspallo, defense lawyer Michael Lepizzera said there's no question Dusseault's DNA was found at the crime scene, but the state's witnesses can't say when or how it got there.

Lepizzera said Dusseault's genetic material was found in the form of "touch DNA," which is shed from skin cells. It doesn't prove that Dusseault was in the house at the time of the homicide, or even that he was ever there at all, because it can last for years, and it can be deposited by someone other than Dusseault who entered the house after having come into casual contact with the defendant.

"That's their entire case," Lepizzera said. "Quite frankly, I'm suprised they proceeded to indictment in this case. It doesn't add up. It certainly doesn't add up to beyond a reasonable doubt."

After listening to a rebuttal from State Prosector Scott Erickson, Magistrate Raspallo said he would announce from the bench on Tuesday his decision on whether Dusseault may be released on bail prior to trial.

In his summary, Erickson said the DNA evidence is sufficient to convict Dusseault of first-degree murder, a crime for which the state is seeking life without the possibility of parole.

Erickson said Dusseault's DNA wasn't just collected willy nilly from Gauthier house -- it was intimately associated with the crime scene, some of it mixed in with stains of Gauthier's own blood. Some of those stains were on drawers and handles of dressers and other furniture in Gauthier's bedroom that appeared to have been rifled during the homicide.

There were five distinct sites in the bedroom where his DNA was found, Erickson said.

"There is one person and only one person this investigation points to, through undisputed, scientific evidence," said Erickson. "It's this defendant."

Clad in dark clothing, Dusseault, 22, slumped expressionlessly in his seat at the defense table as his lawyers, including Kevin Salvaggio, made their plea for bail. His parents, grandfather and several other family members looked on from their seats in he spectator section.

The final arguments on bail came after two staggered days of testimony in which a total of four witnesses testified, including a DNA expert from the Department of Health Crime lab. The rest were members of the Woonsocket Police Department, including yesterday's sole witness, Detective Anthony Conetta, who became the lead investigator in the Gauthier case about two years after the homicide, in 2018.

On direct examination by State Prosecutor Katelyn Revens, Conetta explained how, after reading an article in the Washington Post, he had an idea for attempting to identify a suspect in the case using new techniques involving ancestry DNA.

The WPD, he said, hired Parabon Nanolabs to compare the DNA from an unknown male that had been found at the crime scene to known DNA profiles that were already on file in various ancestry databases. Eventually, Parabon informed the WPD that the unknown sample was that of either the son or father of Paula Gauthier, Dusseault's mother - and no relation to the victim.

Her father died shortly before the homicide, but Dusseault became a person of interest partly because he was friends with Tyler Grenon, a neighbor of the murder victim, as well as an on-again, off-again suspect in the homicide.

He later asked Dusseault to come to the police to answer some questions, telling him, falsely, that his car had been seen at the site of a breaking and entering. The real reason he wanted him at the station was to collect a sample of his DNA, which he agreed to provide, signing a consent to search form.

"Mathew was very respectful," said Conetta. "He was nice. He was overly cooperative."

After buying him a coffee, they went to the station, where he signed the consent form.

The introduction of the form as evidence sparked an objection and a bench conference -- as well as a glimpse of a major defense prong of the case. Salvaggio contends his client's mental capacity is limited by extremely low IQ, rendering him incapable of the necessary reasoning to provide informed consent.

Raspallo overruled the objection, but Salvaggio put a protest on the record.

"A large part of this case is goign to hinge on whether Mr. Dusseault had the capacity to give consent," he said. "I do not agree that Mr. Dusseault signed that freely and voluntarily."

Resuming on direct examination, Conetta said Dusseault told him he understood the consent form and read the first two sentences aloud.

Under cross-examination, Salvaggio attempted to shift suspicions toward Grenon, who was twice arrested on charges related to the murder, once as a co-defendant to first-degree murder charges alongside Dusseault.

All those charges have been dropped, and Grenon, 25, is not linked to the crime through DNA evidence.

"He's not cleared," Conetta told him. "He's not a suspect. He's open to further investigation."

On the attack, Salvaggio pressed the detective on a smorgasbord of issues, attempting to portray the case against his client as a weak and circumstantial one, with no established motive, lack of followup on other suspects and leads, and no murder weapon.

Much to the surprise of Salvaggio, and anyone else following Gauthier's homicide, Conetta told him it might not be so that the murder weapon hasn't been found.

"That's open to discussion," Conetta said.

About six days ago, he told Salvaggio that the WPD executed a warrant to search what he described as Dusseault's "original apartment." There, they seized a knife.

Conetta said the police "still have tests ongoing" to determine whether it's the murder weapon.

Another linchpin of Salvaggio's case is that Dusseault's DNA was one of three male samples discovered in Gauthier's home, two of which haven't been identified to date.

Connetta told him he investigated another suspect with a record in North Smithfield for breaking into the home of, and robbing, elderly people. That man lived with other males as well, all of whom were identified by name in court.

Under direct examination by Revens, Conetta said all were DNA-profiled, and none came up a match for the unknowns from Gauthier's home, however.

Conetta also testified that Grenon had a key to Gauthier's home, and she also had "a boyfriend" who may have had one.

The 13-year veteran of the Woonsocket police department said Gauthier's body was discovered on March 23, 2016, though she could have been dead for more than a day. Previously published reports and affidavits indicated that she'd been stabbed 68 times about the head, neck and torso, but in closing arguments yesterday Erickson twice pegged the figure at 75. And in a memorandum of bail, Dusseault's own defense lawyer said there were 80 wounds.

"Do you feel as though you have a global knowledge of this case," Salvaggio asked Conetta at one point.

"There's still a lot to be learned aboout this case," the detective allowed.

"So you're telling me this case is not done at this point?"

"Absolutely not."

Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo

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