Charles Eugene Burns, the 35-year-old laborer convicted of killing one woman and suspected in assaults on others, was sentenced to life without parole yesterday by a Harford County judge.
Calling the death of Lillian Abramowicz Phelps a "senseless, predatory, premeditated murder," Circuit Judge Stephen M. Waldron handed down the harshest possible sentence as Burns stood motionless.
Moments earlier, prosecutors had read a chilling letter Burns had written to Waldron in May in which he said he felt bad for the families of "these women," a possible reference to the other victims.
"As I set here I'm thinking of what could've been going through that girls mind, as this was happening to her," he wrote. "I know if this were me, I'd be saying what kind of 'monster' did I get a ride from. I'd be praying to God please Lord help me."
Burns was convicted by a jury in April of killing Phelps, a 43-year-old Elkton woman whose body was found by a farmer in shrubs next to a secluded field outside Aberdeen in June 2006. Prosecutors said Burns picked her up, attacked her and then delivered a fatal blow to her skull by running her over with his car.
Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Hyle Marts said yesterday that prosecutors are awaiting analysis from an FBI crime laboratory on evidence found in three other homicides that police have linked to Phelps' death.
The three bodies were found last summer in grassy fields around Aberdeen. Though police have said they thought the four deaths might have been the work of one person, they have not identified Burns as a suspect publicly and he has not been charged in those cases.
Police said six prostitutes accused Burns of sexually assaulting them in remote locations. He is charged with assault in those cases, and awaiting trial.
Blood found on the bottom of Burns' car - a crucial piece of evidence that helped seal a guilty verdict in a case with no known witnesses - has been linked to at least one additional victim, Jennifer Lynn Blankenship, 26, though Marts declined to comment on other investigations.
A spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office told The Sun in April that autopsies determined that Blankenship and Joyce Tolliver, 51, were homicide victims.
Robert Abramowicz, Phelps' brother, said he hoped the families of the other women can receive the same solace.
Before he was sentenced, Burns' defense attorneys and his adoptive mother told Waldron of his chaotic childhood. They said he was born to an abusive, alcoholic single mother and never knew his father's identity. Separated from his birth siblings, they said, he suffered from emotional and physical abuse and was bounced among foster homes before being adopted at age 10.
He showed steady improvement until his teen years, when he became angry and his behavior turned uncontrollable, they said. He spent six weeks at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, a psychiatric institution in Towson, and was later sent to the Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents in Catonsville, where he was given a diagnosis of "severe emotional disturbance" and tried to commit suicide several times.
Burns' criminal history was relatively short, except for a 2002 conviction in a domestic assault and later for violating a protective order. He had a steady job with a masonry company and lived with his grandparents in Bel Air, his defense attorneys said.
Phelps was a 43-year-old mother of two struggling with substance abuse who traveled to Aberdeen on May 31 with a friend. They drank a pint of vodka during the course of the day and had started another bottle when Phelps said she wanted to leave to find crack cocaine, a friend testified during the trial.
Her body was found two weeks later, her jaw ripped off and ribs snapped, with two large puncture wounds in her skull. The hyoid bone in her neck was also broken, a characteristic of strangulation, according to testimony by a medical examiner.
The trial presented challenges for prosecutors. There were no witnesses to the crime, and forensic scientists who scoured Burns' home and the inside of his car found no DNA evidence or any of the victim's possessions. Prosecutors were prohibited from telling jurors that Burns had been identified as a suspect in the investigation of other similar assaults.
Instead, investigators used circumstantial evidence to produce the theory that after taking Phelps to a secluded location and attacking her, Burns left her on the ground and ran over her.
A strand of hair was found under a front wheel of Burns' car and attached to a bolt, which was similar in size to two holes on the right side of Phelps' skull. Prosecutors also pulled Burns' cell phone records, which showed that he was within a two-mile radius of Aberdeen and placed two phone calls on the evening Phelps was last seen.
Defense attorneys said those records showed Burns had made dozens of other calls from Aberdeen throughout May.
Public defender Lloyd G. Merriam tried to cast Phelps' character in a negative light, telling the jury that her search for drugs put her in danger. Both sides alluded to the possibility that Phelps had engaged in prostitution that night.
In lobbying Waldron for a lighter sentence yesterday, Burns' attorneys, who lost a bid for a new trial in May, maintained that the prosecution's account of the crime was little more than a hypothesis.
Waldron agreed with prosecutors, who called the attack a "heinous crime." He said he had sympathy for Burns' troubled childhood but that he had robbed a "mother of a daughter, a daughter of a mother and a brother of a sister."
Prosecutors also read letters that Burns, who lashed out at Waldron in a court appearance last year, sent the judge as his sentencing approached.
In neat cursive laced with spelling and grammatical errors, he wrote in a May 5 letter that he wanted to be placed in a medical ward of a prison and said Phelps "didn't deserve this."
Five days later, he wrote Waldron again, this time saying he hadn't thought through his previous letter. This time, he said Phelps "is far from being Mrs. Innocent" and that he had not received a fair trial because of publicity.
"I don't understand how the jury came back in 2 hrs with a guilty verdict based on theories? Where was the state's hard facts that they said they had?" he wrote. "Your honor please give me a new trial?"
Previous coverage at baltimoresun.com/burns