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"Very clear": Kristin Smart murder trial jurors hear from human remains-detection dog handler

Murder trial resumes in death of Kristin Smart
Murder trial resumes in death of Kristin Smart 00:40

SALINAS -- A human remains detection dog handler took the witness stand Monday to testify as part of the Kristin Smart murder trial. 

The Stockton native disappeared on Memorial Day weekend 1996, and now, prosecutors say her former classmate, Paul Flores, killed her during an attempted rape, and his father, Ruben, then helped hide her body. 

Twenty-six years after the start of the investigation into her disappearance, investigators that responded have started to take the stand, one by one, to share what they found and their forensic processes. One of those witnesses Monday, Adella Morris, a professional dog handler who specifies in human remains detection. 

San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Chris Peuvrelle began with Morris' background, training, and experience in human remains detection. Through questioning, he established for the jurors that human remains are everything that constitutes the process of decomposition: "bones, blood, everything that makes up a human." 

Flores' Santa Lucia dorm was searched twice by certified human decomposition dogs in June 1996. 

Human remains detection dog's findings "very clear" 

Morris said she is currently in the process of training her 7th dog as part of her 36-year career. She walked jurors through the process of training a detection dog, that included at least a year of training, and the skills she looks for to identify dogs that have traits that lend themselves to this line of work. 

Jurors in the Kristin Smart murder trial see an image of one of the human remains detection dogs referenced by the prosecution's expert witness in court Monday.  Brittany Tom (NBC News Dateline)
Adella Morris, a human remains dog handler, testified in a Salinas courtroom Monday as an expert witness in the Kristin Smart murder trial.  Brittany Tom (NBC News Dateline)

She explained that even domesticated dogs still retain the knowledge of how to hunt and some have a high prey drive, which is different than a hunt drive. She made clear: "No, we don't chase squirrels, we look for human remains." 

This career background set the stage for her role in the investigation into Smart's disappearance. Peuvrelle established Morris' credibility through these questions and the role of a human remains detection dog to the investigation in 1996, and now, as part of Smart's murder trial. 

Morris is a member of the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) and as part of state requirements, she has to be proficient in compass and search techniques. 

"Finding a clue could help direct the whole search," said Morris. 

In June 1996, a month after Smart disappeared, Morris was called to help with the investigation in San Luis Obispo County. She responded to Cal Poly's campus with two search dogs Cholla and Cirque, both certified.   

Cholla is a Border Collie who was certified in 1995 and worked until 2000. In that time, Cholla had "several finds to her career", one example of this, that Cholla found remains after an explosion. 

"I would say, Cholla was more reliable for finding human remains," said Morris. 

Morris got her first assignment: search areas of Cal Poly including some reservoirs further from the Cal Poly campus. After this search, Morris was tasked with a search of an on-campus dorm, to which she said she, "had no idea whose dorm it was." 

Jurors learned that dorm was Paul Flores', located in Santa Lucia Hall. 

Morris went in with "blind procedure," which meant, she knew another human remains dog handler searched the dorm first, but did not know what the other dog did or searched. She was given one direction: start at one of the entrances. The rest, she would explain, was part of the training and detection process. 

She went in with Cholla who Morris said was her main dog. The process was, "watching for that change of behavior which is characteristic when they're in their target scent," she said. 

If two dogs do the same thing, it is reinforcement that the scent is there. Jurors would learn, Cholla alerted as the process continued. Cholla was let off the leash at the Santa Lucia dorm. 

"She, like, ran down the hall and almost immediately she literally made a U-turn and started coming back and concentrating on some of the doors," Morris said. 

Cholla alerted at one of the doors using her "alert" which meant she jumped on Morris when she located the target odor of human remains scent. Morris notified officers at the dorm Cholla wanted to go inside 128 Santa Lucia, which we would later learn during court, was where Flores lived. 

Inside, Cholla was "primarily interested in the bed, on the bed," said Morris. 

This process repeated, according to Morris, who said Cholla alerted to the target scent of human remains a dozen times at the bed. There was no mistake, Morris told jurors, Cholla was both "enthusiastic" and "emphatic" about what she found. 

Morris said Cholla did not alert in any other dorm room on all three floors. 

Morris answered more questions about Cholla's qualifications and repeatedly, she said, over the years she has been requested "by name" to signify the reliability and skill of Cholla. These questions also reinforced the prosecutor's position, that Morris be qualified as an expert in dog handling. 

The second search: human remains alerted twice
Brittany Tom (NBC News Dateline)

Morris' second dog, certified and trained to detect human remains, would reinforce Cholla's findings. Unlike Cholla, Cirque did not alert with a jump, but instead, would demonstrate through body language. 

Cirque alerted at the door of room 128 and once inside, Cirque alerted on the left-hand side of the room that belonged to Flores. The alerts to the left side of the room happened multiple times "around the bed area," according to Morris. 

Room 128 was the only dorm both dogs alerted to the target scent, Morris said. 

Cross-examination focused on dog handler's credibility 
Paul Flores' attorney Robert Sanger points to evidence in a Monterey County courtroom on Monday during the Kristin Smart murder trial.  Brittany Tom (NBC News Dateline)

Paul Flores' attorney, Robert Sanger, began his line of questioning with a statement question about the dog's likeliness to be attracted to tri-tip. In response, Morris said the dogs would want to eat it. 

Sanger continued this route of questioning, to ask if Flores' dorm was the only room with red police tape. Morris responded that there was nothing in the door or around the door, nothing to distinguish one dorm from the next. 

Morris would clarify, she did not see visible tape after another question by Sanger. 

Sanger went into certification questions about the organizations the prosecution asked Morris about to establish she was an expert witness. 

In another line of questions from Sanger to Morris, he tried to establish that alerts made by trained dogs were "inferences" based on an article from the subject, one he read partially to the court on Monday. 

Sanger: "For the most part, the cases that you talked about that were successful were cases where you located a body or body part." He continued: "In the Kristin Smart case... you didn't find anything." 

An objection by the prosecution is overruled after this line of questions, and Morris is able to respond: "There was no physical evidence that we were aware of." 

Sanger then focused on research he presented that, he said, outlined the scientist's lack of understanding about what makes dogs alert to human decomposition and lets them identify it. This subject, false positives, is a focus for the end of Monday's testimony and cross-examination. 

He then asked about another search Morris was involved in, a year after the Cal Poly dorm search, at the home of Susan Flores, Paul's mother. 

As part of this 1997 search, dogs showed interest in a corner with the trash cans in the yard, but there was no alert. The area was mostly concrete, but again, did not lead to an official alert. 

Sanger told the court that the search at Susan's home was set up by the Smart family's civil attorney, Jim Murphy. More details from this search of Susan's home are the final piece to Morris' testimony and cross-examination on Monday and will be back on the stand Tuesday to resume questions. 

Nicolás Viñuela is a CBS contributor to this post and is a general assignment reporter for the Mustang Daily News.

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