Man convicted in 1979 rape, murder in Essex

DNA trace found in 2005 key in cracking cold case

September 21, 2007|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,sun reporter

A 51-year-old Salisbury man was convicted yesterday of the rape and murder of an Essex woman 28 years ago in a long-cold case that was cracked through DNA evidence.

Relatives of Sheila Bazemore Rascoe dabbed their eyes with tissues after the jury foreman announced the verdicts against Thomas J. Grant, who lived down the street from the victim in 1979 when she was sexually assaulted and strangled.

The convictions brought to a close not only the three-day trial that unfolded this week in Baltimore County Circuit Court but also the nearly three decades-long wait that Rascoe's family endured before the murder was solved.

"It was a long time, and we just didn't know," said Beryl Hyman, one of Rascoe's sisters who attended the trial. "It's just good to know that there's nobody else he can hurt."

Rascoe, a London Fog seamstress known as a fashionable dresser and a tidy housekeeper, was preparing for a weekend trip with her boyfriend when she was killed in her apartment in the early morning of Sept. 15, 1979.

Police did not have any viable leads until 2005, when semen left on the nightshirt that the 28-year-old woman wore the evening she was killed led police to Grant. The forensic analyst who extracted DNA from the stain testified at trial that the likelihood that the semen came from someone other than Grant is one in 110 trillion in the African-American population.

But defense attorney Jerri Peyton-Braden argued that the evidence proved nothing more than that Grant had sex with the victim.

After initially denying that he recognized Rascoe's name or photograph, Grant told the homicide detectives who questioned him in 2005 that he had sex with the victim the night before she was killed. That statement, however, was not presented to jurors at trial.

"We have semen on a nightshirt," the defense attorney said during her closing argument. "We have two people in their 20s in 1979 -- a far different time on the sexual scene than today."

She added, "It isn't good enough to say he was the only one they could prove had sex with her, so it must be him. That's not good enough."

But prosecutor Susan H. Hazlett countered that the friends and family members whom Rascoe cared about knew of only one man in her life. That was Albert Bell, a bus driver she met on the No. 22 bus line and with whom she was planning her weekend trip to Richmond, Va.

"You can talk about 1979 and the sexual revolution," the prosecutor said. "What do we know? We know that Albert Bell was the man she was planning to go away with."

Hazlett also asked jurors to pay particular attention to the black-and-white crime scene photographs -- some now yellowed with age -- that were taken the night of Rascoe's death.

"Every single thing about this woman's apartment is a clue," she said.

The keys on the floor by the front door suggest that the killer pushed his way into Rascoe's apartment after she unlocked the deadbolt, Hazlett told jurors. The butcher knife on the table where Rascoe had been ironing a new blouse indicate that he likely threatened to kill her if she screamed. And Rascoe's shoes and bed pillows -- tossed about the otherwise meticulous apartment -- suggest the struggle that ensued.

"She is knocked out of her shoes. By that man right there," the prosecutor said, raising her voice and pointing across the courtroom to Grant. "The last moments of her life had to be horrifying. Horrifying."

One of the jurors who sat through Grant's trial said in an interview after the verdicts were announced that the photographs were pivotal to their decision to convict the defendant.

"She was so neat," Sandra Korzick, 68, of Timonium, said, adding that jurors did not believe that a woman that clean and tidy would be wearing a nightshirt stained with another man's semen while waiting for her boyfriend to arrive.

The nine women and three men of the jury also discussed the lack of "overt evidence" of a sexual assault and whether Rascoe's history with an abusive husband might have influenced her response to the attack, Korzick said.

"We actually discussed at length why she may have submitted to him, how she might have thought, `If I go along with it, maybe I'll be OK,'" the juror said.

She characterized the DNA evidence as "very compelling" and expressed satisfaction that investigators would still review such evidence after 28 years in unsolved cases.

"I'm very pleased that some cases like this are not forgotten," Korzick said. "I think it offers a great deal of comfort to people to know that someone is not going to give up."

Grant faces a sentence of up to life in prison for the first-degree murder conviction. No sentencing date was set yesterday.

Grant, whose criminal record includes convictions in 1988 for second-degree rape and sodomy as well as other arrests on sex offenses, has been locked up in Wicomico County awaiting trial in a separate rape case there.

jennifer.mcmenamin @baltsun.com

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