A killer's letters to judge are revealing

The Baltimore Sun

As he sat in a Harford County jail cell with his sentencing approaching, convicted killer Charles Eugene Burns wrote a rambling letter to Judge Stephen M. Waldron in which he expressed sorrow for the pain inflicted on the family of his victim, referred to her killer as a "monster" and said she didn't deserve to die.

The letters were introduced moments before Burns was sentenced last week to life without parole, offered by prosecutors as evidence that Burns was perhaps acknowledging the crime and its severity. "In his own words, he described the person that would perpetuate such a crime as a monster," Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Hyle Marts said.

Some experts on criminal behavior, however, said the letters are less an admission of guilt than a clumsy attempt at displaying empathy toward the victim as he continues to assert that prosecutors did not present enough evidence to convict him. What was clear, they said, is that he displays clear signs of sociopathy.

The missives offer insight into the mind of a troubled man who was convicted for the murder of Lillian Abramowicz 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.

Though police have said they thought Phelps' killing and those of three other women whose bodies were found in Harford County fields 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. The FBI is analyzing evidence from the three unsolved crimes to see if there is a connection.

Burns' letters, dated May 5 and May 10, were written shortly after he was found guilty and a few weeks before his sentencing was originally slated to take place later that month. He wrote in neat cursive, riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.

In the first, Burns was delicate and apologetic, asking if he could serve his sentence in a mental ward and repeatedly asking Waldron to "bare with me" while offering his sympathy for the victim.

"I'm not trying to make lite of what's happened its terrible. The hell these familys have went thru of these women and the horror is more than they should've ever had to go thru," he wrote.

"As I set here Im thinking of what could've been going thru that girls mind, as this was happening to her - I know if this were me I'd be saying what kind of 'monster' did I get a ride from. ... No matter what this girl did wrong or rite in her life she didn't deserve this."

After signing his name, Burns continued to write. "One other thing while I'm thinking about it," he said, offering that he could have unknowingly run Phelps over while visiting the area with prostitutes.

However, just five days later, Burns struck a decidedly different tone. He began: "I wrote you a letter without thi[n]king about what I wanted to write." This time, he carefully composed his thoughts in single-line, numbered sentences - much the way a lawyer might prepare a legal document.

His sympathy for the victim shown in the previous letter was all but gone. He noted prosecution witnesses who testified that Phelps was "drunk" and hanging out in a known drug area. He wrote that though cell phone records place him there, "so what's that really prove."

"I've gone to that spot a lot just to watch the deer," he wrote. He also noted the lack of fingerprints and asked the judge if he read articles in the local newspaper about him.

Burns was arrested in July last year and charged with assault after prostitutes came forward saying he had picked them up, choked and sexually assaulted them and left them for dead in remote fields. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges and awaits an October trial in the assaults.

Burns' attorney, public defender Kelly A. Casper, declined to comment yesterday on Burns' correspondence with the judge, but in court on Monday said the prosecution's case in Phelps' murder was "nothing more than a theory."

A sixth-grade dropout, Burns spent his adolescent years in mental institutions before working unskilled jobs at construction sites around Harford.

"Even though he can't spell or write very well, he's thought this out carefully enough to know he's not going to accidentally be talking about himself in the first person to the judge in the case," said Robert D. Keppel, an associate professor at the University of New Haven and a former Seattle police detective best known for his work tracking serial killers Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway.

Others said Burns could have been identifying himself as the "monster," basking in the attention much like the serial killers former acquaintances say he was so obsessed with. The letters to the judge prolonged the attention paid to him and drew further notice to his handiwork, said Richard Walter, a retired prison psychologist with the Michigan Department of Corrections.

"He's telling us, in essence, of his ability [to cover his tracks] due to the absence of evidence," Walter said.

Arnett W. Gaston, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland who profiled "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz, said Burns' writings show clear signs of anti-social disorder.

"This is very typical of disassociative thinking, in that they don't accept blame," Gaston said. "He's done a lot of intellectualization of this by where he doesn't accept guilt. What he is doing is what sociopaths try to do: placate the ones in a position to benefit them."

Keppel - who profiled Bundy and Ridgway, the "Green River Killer" who pleaded guilty to killing four dozen women in the Seattle area - said Burns' letters contain unusually few details, possibly because Burns believes he can win an appeal and is being careful not to incriminate himself.

Instead, he said, "this is more for trying to appease the judge that he has empathy for what the victim might have been thinking, but that he didn't cause it.'"

Walter, the former prison psychologist, said Burns' shift in tone reflects an awareness that he had taken the spotlight off himself.

"He wanted to be a sympathetic character - he sees it as important," Walter said. "Then he ends up not protecting his own interests, and he comes back. This is his greatest drama that he's ever had, and he's not going to allow [Phelps] to be the subject. He must be the subject of the discussion."

The change in form - from a narrative to the numbered talking points - is also likely an attempt to appear more intelligent, Gaston said.

"Maybe he felt he could impress the judge more," Gaston said.


Read the letters and find previous coverage at baltimoresun.com/burns

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