Though the blood of Lillian Abramowicz Phelps was found on the bottom of a suspect's vehicle, prosecutors lack evidence that the man is responsible for her death, defense attorneys told jurors yesterday.
The contention came during opening statements as the trial of Charles Eugene Burns, a 35-year-old laborer charged with first-degree murder, began in Harford County Circuit Court. Burns has been charged with sexually assaulting and attacking six other women, and linked as a possible suspect in the deaths of three others.
Collectively, the allegations paint a picture of a troubled man who might have terrorized vulnerable women during a stretch of several weeks last summer. But jurors will not hear the other accusations because evidence in other cases is not admissible.
For this case, prosecutors are relying on Phelps' blood and a strand of hair recovered from the bottom of Burns' vehicle, theorizing that Burns killed the 43-year-old mother of two by running her over. They said that on the night Phelps disappeared, Burns' mobile phone connected with a cell tower within 2 miles of where her body was found.
But searches of Burns' residence in Bel Air and the inside of his Dodge Neon have turned up no other evidence linking him to Phelps, Burns' attorney said. Prosecutors also can't prove that Burns was driving the car when the victim was run over, or that he and Phelps had ever met.
"The only thing the state has that would connect [the defendant and victim] in any way is a spot of blood on the rear of the car," public defender Lloyd G. Merriam said. " ... In a homicide, you have to show the killing of one person by another, and the state can only say there's this spot of blood."
Phelps vanished the night of May 31 after leaving the Aberdeen home of a friend's relative, witnesses testified yesterday. Phelps and the friend, Cheryl Cox, had been drinking all day and planned to purchase crack cocaine, but Phelps grew impatient and left, Cox testified yesterday.
"I dug out $7 and said I had some [crack] on the way, but she refused to stay," Cox testified.
Two weeks later, Phelps' body was found by a farmer alongside a Havre de Grace cornfield, badly injured and decomposed. Having received reports of other assaults from women who survived, police identified Burns as a suspect, searched his vehicle and found Phelps' blood.
Because of the restriction on mentioning other cases, Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Hyle Marts only could tell jurors that police "developed a suspect, and that suspect is Mr. Burns."
As Cox left the witness stand, she walked past Burns and said, "I hope you go to jail."
During a motions hearing earlier this month, lawyers on both sides said that blood from another woman - 26-year-old Jennifer Lynn Blankenship of Aberdeen, who was found dead in a remote field in Perryman - also was on the bottom of the vehicle. No one has been charged in that death.
On the first day of his trial, Burns' demeanor was in contrast to several weeks ago when he lashed out at his attorneys and Circuit Judge Stephen M. Waldron. At a pretrial hearing, Burns yelled that Waldron was not superior to him.
Burns wore a gray suit yesterday and was clean-shaven with short-cropped hair. He was unshackled, instead wearing an electric-shock belt under his jacket, and joked occasionally with his attorneys.
In interviews with The Sun, family and friends have said Burns was abandoned at a young age and bounced from home to home before being adopted. He was found guilty of second-degree assault and harassment in 2002, and later jailed for six months for violating a protective order. A District Court judge ordered that he undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
Also attending yesterday's trial were children of Sheila Ann Turner, an Aberdeen resident whose body was discovered shortly after Phelps'. Felicia Vaughn, Turner's 19-year-old daughter who told The Sun she was frustrated with a lack of information from prosecutors, exchanged phone numbers with investigators in the courthouse hallway.