An attorney for the man accused of killing Sadie Roberts-Joseph is now questioning whether it's possible police could have illegally seized his DNA and planted it on her body just hours before obtaining an arrest warrant.

Roberts-Joseph, a civil rights activist and founder of the Baton Rouge African American history museum, was discovered suffocated and left in the trunk of her car last weekend. Baton Rouge police announced Tuesday the first-degree murder arrest of Ronn Bell, 38, the victim's tenant who was about $1,200 behind in rent. 

Bell's arrest report notes his DNA was found on Roberts-Joseph's body.

Police also said video evidence shows him near where her car was found — about 3 miles from her Scotlandville home, which is down the street from the house Bell was renting. He later admitted to detectives that he had been in the location where the car was dumped, but said he was not inside the vehicle and had not seen Roberts-Joseph for several days before her death.

The public defender representing Bell, Sara Clarke, filed a motion Friday requesting to bring a camera into Parish Prison to take photos of Bell's body because she alleges that authorities seized "chunks of his hair" from two places on his head — without his consent or a search warrant — the day before announcing his arrest in the Roberts-Joseph case. She said they also took a saliva swab the following day, which would show the same DNA.

Baton Rouge police took Bell into custody Monday and booked him into jail on the grounds he had failed to pay the annual $60 registration fee required for all registered sex offenders. That's when, Clarke claims, they took his hair without being authorized to do so. Police then announced his arrest Tuesday in the Roberts-Joseph case.

Baton Rouge police spokesman Sgt. L'Jean McKneely Jr. said investigators did take a sample of Bell's hair and his saliva, but only after obtaining a search warrant that authorized them to seize both. He said the samples were sent to the State Police crime lab for processing and then cross referenced to DNA collected on the scene. Baton Rouge police were not immediately able to provide a copy of the search warrant, which hasn't been filed into online court records. 

"To the best of our knowledge, Bell was not harmed in any way during his apprehension and arrest," McKneely said.

Clarke said her client was not provided a copy of a search warrant nor notified of its existence before his hair was seized or later when his saliva was swabbed: "To date, my client has not been provided with a copy of any search warrant for the seizure of anything."

"For what purpose would law enforcement need hair and then saliva, in that order? Saliva alone would be sufficient to compare any and all DNA that allegedly was found," Clarke wrote in the motion. She questioned whether "the hair that was seized from his head by law enforcement on Monday, July 15, 2019, is the hair that was referenced in the arrest warrant affidavit (from July 16, 2019) as being 'found' on the deceased."

McKneely said it's not unusual for detectives to request both hair and saliva to be thorough, especially in a murder case. He said the hair can be used for additional tests, including toxicology. 

Clarke has asked the court to order the warden of East Baton Rouge Parish Prison to allow her to photograph Bell's body in an apparent effort to document the alleged missing chunks of hair. She argues his constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures has been violated. 

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III said he's "disappointed by the allegations." He described them as "offensive and hurtful to Ms. Roberts-Joseph's family, who have not even yet had the chance to bury and pay tribute to her legacy." 

"While I have great respect for the public defender's office, these allegations are baseless and totally without merit," Moore said in an email. "This defendant is presumed innocent and is entitled to a vigorous defense. We accept our burden of proof and look forward to a full review of all facts, evidence and the law."

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.