Cold case thaws as Baltimore man is indicted in 1981 murder

DNA testing matched the killing of a 75-year-old woman to the suspect, police say

September 05, 2014|By Justin George, The Baltimore Sun

DNA recovered from a blanket taken from a crime scene decades ago has helped prosecutors bring charges against a Baltimore man they say raped and killed a 75-year-old woman in 1981.

Phillip D. Lee, 55, is charged with first-degree murder and first-degree sex offense in the death of Anna Dorthea Smith. He has been held since mid-August without bail. Police and prosecutors announced his indictment Friday.

The indictment "highlights the power of DNA analysis, which led us to this defendant," Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said.

The case had no suspects until advances in DNA testing helped point investigators to Lee. Investigators have been unable to find any of Smith's relatives to inform them of Lee's arrest.

"In essence, the detectives on this case were the victim's last voice," police spokesman Detective Jeremy Silbert said.

Baltimore's Cold Case Unit, made of one lieutenant and five detectives, juggles several old investigations at the same time. Its members can decide to look at any unsolved homicide or other major crime.

Over the years, technology and legislation have enabled the state to expand its collection of DNA from criminals and suspects, increasing the likelihood that detectives can link long-stored evidence to suspects and solve years-old cases.

In July, Baltimore County police and prosecutors identified suspects in the unrelated killings of women in the 1990s. DNA tests allowed the Baltimore County state's attorney's office to close both cases, but there were no charges: The two men had since died.

Authorities in Baltimore said connecting Lee to Smith's killing took several years of work.

Smith was found strangled in her home in the 2500 block of W. Fairmount Ave. on the morning of Dec. 7, 1981.

A neighbor had called officers to Smith's home after seeing her rear door ajar for several hours overnight. Detectives suspected that the killer had broken in. Smith had been beaten, and her home was ransacked.

The Cold Case Unit reviewed evidence in the case in 2005 and suspected that DNA tests that were not available in 1981 might yield new information.

A lab test returned with usable DNA from an unknown suspect. Baltimore police sent the results to the Maryland State Forensic Service Division to be cross-checked with the state's Combined DNA Index System, which includes profiles of sex offenders and other criminals.

Maryland established its statewide DNA database in 1994 and required all convicted sex offenders to submit DNA samples. Lawmakers expanded the requirement in 1999 to include felons convicted of violent crimes, and again in 2002 to include those with any felony convictions and, in some cases, misdemeanor convictions.

In 2009, lawmakers added suspects charged with violent crimes, burglary or attempted burglary.

Prosecutors say the state matched the DNA from Smith's case to Lee, a man for whom court records show a lengthy arrest record and multiple convictions.

Detectives interviewed Lee in 2011 and obtained a DNA sample to perform more tests. Prosecutors say they confirmed that his DNA matched a sample from a blanket found under Smith's body, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors presented the evidence to a grand jury this week and won an indictment on eight criminal charges including murder, sex offense, burglary and daytime housebreaking. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Sept. 25.

No attorney was listed for Lee in court records, which showed that his last known address was at the Rock Glen Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Southwest Baltimore. A representative at the facility declined to comment.

Court records show that Lee has pleaded guilty in previous cases to drug possession; drug manufacturing, distribution or dispensing; and burglary. He has also been convicted of trespassing and marijuana possession.

Records show he was last arrested on a drug possession charge in August 2012 and convicted two months later. They don't say what sentence he received.

It was not clear when Lee was required to submit his DNA to the state as a convicted felon. The match between him and Smith's killing came in 2008, three years after Baltimore police submitted the DNA samples from Smith's homicide to the state crime lab.

It took another three years for police to interview Lee in 2011 and another three for them to obtain an arrest warrant, according to prosecutors.

Steven O'Dell, Baltimore police crime lab director, said there are often long waits to get results from the state forensic lab because of the huge demand on that laboratory. Bernstein attributed the gaps to the time-consuming nature of cold-case prosecutions.

Prosecutors cannot solely rely on DNA evidence to secure convictions; they must also assess other evidence and attempt to reinterview witnesses.

"With these cases that are so old, we have to be very deliberate in how we develop these cases," Bernstein said.

At the time of the killing, neighbors told The Baltimore Sun that Smith attended church and kept to herself.

They said she had lived in the two-story brick rowhouse for more than 30 years and had lived alone in the home since her mother died in about 1975.

"She was a real nice lady from what I saw," neighbor Wallace Galloway told The Evening Sun in 1981. "I'm surprised it happened to someone like her, because she didn't have a lot of people coming in and out of her house. She kept to herself."

Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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