Police made the grisly discovery decades ago inside a West Baltimore rowhouse.
A 75-year-old woman was bound, gagged and suffocated to death. Officers found her in bed and naked below the waist. Anna Dorthea Smith had been sexually assaulted and killed in 1981.
This week, 37 years later, Phillip Lee is standing trial in her death.
“She had actually been bound, so she could not use her arms,” Assistant State's Attorney Jennifer Hastings told jurors in opening statements. “She had a piece of fabric stuffed very hard in her mouth. … This was horrifying.”
The case against Lee hinges on DNA recovered from sperm on Smith’s bed, tested years after her death. During opening arguments Monday, Lee’s defense attorney told jurors that evidence was tainted over the years.
“The problem is the evidence control area in Baltimore City has been a mess — it’s a mess,” assistant public defender Jane McGough said. “All these items were moldy.”
With short, graying hair, the 58-year-old Lee nodded along. He has an eighth-grade education and psychiatric problems, McGough told jurors. Lee is charged with murder, burglary and sex offenses.
It was a long road that led police to bring the charges against him.
Back in 1981, Smith lived independently on West Fairmount Avenue in the Shipley Hill neighborhood. Jurors saw a photo of her in a pink house dress standing before flowers.
On Dec. 7 of that year, her neighbor called police after noticing Smith’s back door cracked open. Detectives found the door had been pried.
Inside, the only light came from her sewing machine, Baltimore Police Lt. Terrence McLarney told jurors. Her chair was pushed out; there was cloth under the needle.
“She may actually have been startled while she literally sat at her sewing machine,” said Hastings, the prosecutor.
Police found Smith bound on the bed, she said. Smith was gagged with a ball of cloth. A sweater was wrapped around her head. And her stockings were down at her ankles. She had been dead for a few days.
Investigators wrapped her in the bedding and brought her body for an autopsy. Police cataloged and bagged the blankets in the evidence room of the Baltimore Police Department.
With no witnesses or additional evidence, the case languished.
“Forensic testing as we see it and hear about it today didn’t exist,” Hastings said. “This essentially became a classic cold case.”
The Cold Case Unit reviewed the evidence in 2005, suspecting that DNA tests unavailable in 1981 might bring new leads. They found and tested sperm from the bedding.
Baltimore police sent the results to be cross-checked with the state's DNA database, which includes profiles of sex offenders and other criminals.
Court records show Lee has been convicted of drug possession, drug manufacturing and burglary. It was not clear when Lee was required to submit his DNA to the state as a convicted felon.
The match between him and the evidence from Smith's homicide came in 2008, three years after Baltimore police submitted the DNA samples to the state crime lab.
It took another three years for police to interview Lee, and another three for them to obtain an arrest warrant. In September 2014, a grand jury indicted Lee on the charges.
“Mr. Lee’s sperm is on the blanket where Ms. Smith was killed,” Hastings told the jury Monday.
But, in another twist in the cold case, so was DNA from a second unidentified man, prosecutors told jurors Monday.
McGough, the defense attorney, said all the evidence had been tainted by flooding in 2003.
Hurricane Isabel flooded the evidence room with three feet of water, she said. Paper bags with evidence from Smith’s case were floating; later, they were filled with mold, she said.
A T-shirt had washed in that didn’t belong, McGough said.
“The T-shirt had nothing to do with this case,” she told jurors. “That’s the evidence they have for you.”
Lee has denied the charges repeatedly. His trial is scheduled for four days, and he remains the only person charged in Smith’s death.