Rowland trial Friday: Victim’s DNA linked to blood, items found in car, prosecutors say

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Cell phone location data, footprint impressions, DNA evidence, video surveillance, ATM cameras – all were included in testimony Friday as prosecutors put up a parade of scientific and forensic experts in their efforts to prove Nathaniel Rowland kidnapped and killed University of South Carolina senior Samantha Josephson.

The scientific witnesses offered what appeared to be the clearest evidence yet in four days of testimony from some 30 prosecution witnesses that linked link Rowland, 27, to the abduction of Josephson, 21, from the front of a Five Points nightclub on March 29, 2019, when she stepped into a car she believed was her Uber ride. But it wasn’t an Uber, and she ended up stabbed her to death and her body dumped in a rural woods 65 miles from Columbia.

“All four of those were connected to the footprint bearing the name of Samantha Josephson,” testified Kimberly Mears, a latent print analyst with the State Law Enforcement Division.

Mears testified the Josephson’s footprint impressions were found on the inside right rear window of the Chevrolet Impala that prosecutors say was driven by Rowland and illustrate the prosecutors’ horrific version of events — that Josephson mistakenly entered a car she believed was an Uber rideshare and found herself locked in the back with a stranger at the wheel. In the struggle, Josephson tried to kick her way out of the window before being repeatedly stabbed to death. The vehicle was equipped with window and door locks controlled by the driver, earlier witnesses have testified.

Although the footprints on the inside car window have been mentioned earlier in the trial, Mears’ testimony was the first time those prints of her heels and toes were linked conclusively to a car known to be driven by Rowland.

Prosecutors hope the footprint evidence, along with other scientific evidence offered Friday linking Rowland to Josephson will convince a jury of Rowland’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. There are apparently no human witnesses who saw Rowland with Josephson. There are apparently no camera images that clearly put Rowland with Josephson.

In an opening statement to the jury earlier this week, lead prosecutor Solicitor Byron Gipson referred to the scientific evidence the state will be offering, telling the jurors they don’t have to see something happen to know it happened If they go inside the courthouse and there’s no snow on the ground, Gipson said, and when they come out, they should know it has been snowing while they were inside.

Prosecutor Dan Goldberg shows a multi-tool that prosecutors have entered into evidence in the murder trial for Nathaniel Rowland, accused of killing USC student Samantha Josephson, during the trial on Friday, July 23, 2021.
Prosecutor Dan Goldberg shows a multi-tool that prosecutors have entered into evidence in the murder trial for Nathaniel Rowland, accused of killing USC student Samantha Josephson, during the trial on Friday, July 23, 2021.

“You didn’t see what happened, but you can infer that it snowed,” Gipson told the jury, asking members to trust in accepted everyday modern science. “You didn’t leave your common sense in the parking lot.”

Rowland’s defense attorneys have made it clear they intend to exploit the lack of any witnesses who saw Rowland with Josephson. By the time the trial is over, public defender Alicia Goode told the jurors in her opening statement, they will know “it is not his (Rowland’s) fault and he is not to blame for the death of Samantha Josephson.”

Other scientific witnesses testifying Friday included:

Rachel Nguyen, a SLED DNA expert who testified that DNA from the blood found in the back seat area of Rowland’s Chevrolet Impala belonged to Josephson. Earlier, witnesses testified the back seat was soaked in blood. Also earlier, Columbia police officer Jeffrey Kraft testified that in the early morning hours of March 30, 2019, he stopped a black Chevrolet Impala driven by Rowland a day after Josephson was abducted and killed. Rowland jumped out and ran. Kraft then looked in the car and saw large amounts of blood in the car.

Ryan DeWane, a SLED forensic expert in DNA, testified that blood on the back of Rowland’s shoe was highly likely to be Josephson’s blood. DNA highly likely to have been Josephson’s was also found under Rowland’s fingernails, although it may have been mixed with that of an unidentified individual, she testified.

A blood sample on the bladed tool believed to have killed Josephson matched her blood, DeWane testified.

Another blood sample from a Rowland sock, was highly likely to have Josephson’s DNA, DeWane testified.

DeWane also testified to the DNA’s uniqueness, saying, “No two people have the same profile.” DNA evidence comes from saliva, blood or hair and even by touch. “You leave cells behind when you touch something.”

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s Britt Dove testifies Thursday about phone records discovered in the trial of Nathaniel Rowland, who is accused of murdering Samantha Josephson.
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s Britt Dove testifies Thursday about phone records discovered in the trial of Nathaniel Rowland, who is accused of murdering Samantha Josephson.

Eric Grabsky, a former SLED cell phone location expert who now works for a private company, testified cell phone tower data showed that Josephson’s cell phone “tracked” — traveled along — with Rowland’s cell phone in the hours after 2 a.m. March 29, 2019, when Five Points surveillance cameras captured her entering the back seat of a black Chevrolet Impala.

The tracking, based on data from cell phone towers, tracks only phones and doesn’t establish that a specific person was with a specific phone, Grabsky testified.

Grabsky showed the jurors a power point illustrating the path he said the two phones took together briefly in Columbia after leaving Five Points. At some point, Josephson’s phone stopped being tracked. But tracking continued on Rowland’s phone.

That tracking showed Rowland’s phone traveling from Columbia east toward Sumter and on to New Zion, a rural community in east Sumter County. That was where Josephson’s body was found by turkey hunters in a remote wooded area accessible only by dirt roads and footpaths. Rowland had grown up in that area, witnesses have previously testified.

Grabsky’s cell phone tracking data of Rowland’s phone also put the phone near Sumter after 5 am on March 29, 2019, close to where someone twice tried unsuccessfully to put Josephson’s bank debit card into a Wells Fargo ATM, Grabsky testified.

Earlier Friday, Danny Conyers, a retired Wells Fargo financial crimes investigator, testified the ATM’s cameras captured the image of a man who tried to use the machine on that date and time but a precise identification was not possible.

Each scientific witness briefly explained the science behind the evidence, as well as a summary of their training.

Print expert Mears, for example, told the jury that human prints have tiny ridges that can be broken down into patterns of “arches, loops or whirls.” Grabsky, the cell phone location expert, explained that cell phone providers use location data to improve their service.

In cross examinations, defense attorneys asked questions apparently aimed at showing the experts didn’t know everything.

For example, defense attorney Tracy Pinnock got print expert Mears to acknowledge that she was sent many samples for tests. “You don’t have any way to determine what may be important and what is not important?” asked Pinnock.

No, replied Mears.

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