Dana Keller noticed her dogs in the bleachers and not romping on the practice field at Reginald F. Lewis High School in northeast Baltimore. They had found something, a woman.
“The way she was sitting, it just didn’t look right,” Keller told jurors Tuesday.
Keller recounted her grisly discovery in the football bleachers one June morning last year. The neighbor had found the body of a young woman bound with ropes. She had been beaten, strangled and stabbed in her neck.
Prosecutors played Keller’s anguished phone call.
“I think she’s dead,” she told the 911 operator. “Oh, my God.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this. What is wrong with this world?”
Prosecutors chose this grim scene to begin their murder case against Christopher Rather. The 23-year-old from Northeast Baltimore is accused of brutally killing his ex-girlfriend, Jasmine Pierce-Morris, 20, and leaving her body slumped in the bleachers.
They had been dates to junior prom. Now prosecutors described him as a jilted lover.
“As recent as the weekend before, Jasmine Pierce-Morris had begun to see somebody else,” Assistant State’s Attorney Bethany Durand told the jury.
Rather has no previous criminal record. His defense attorney argued that detectives botched the investigation, mishandled evidence and set out to blame the boyfriend.
“They failed to follow up on other leads and interview other people,” Paul Batchelor told the jury.
Not in dispute, however, was the young woman’s tragic and gruesome death. In court, a woman seated in the gallery, a family member, bent over and cried as she listened.
Pierce-Morris had a fractured skull. Her lips were busted. Even her brain was bruised. She was repeatedly stabbed in the side of her neck. The autopsy took five hours. Tiny hemorrhages showed in her eyes, indicating she was strangled, too. When the doctor showed the autopsy photos, some jurors looked away.
Rather sat with his head down, writing on a yellow legal pad. He did not look up.
Police relied on tattoos to initially identify the body in the bleachers. The victim’s driver’s license and cellphone were missing.
Pierce-Morris had vanished the evening before. She left home to work overnight at the Amazon warehouse, but she never arrived.
“I’ve never seen anything like this. What is wrong with this world?”— Witness Dana Keller
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Her mother filed a missing person report. Later detectives found a text message Pierce-Morris had sent a friend. She had planned a stop before work.
“Soooo, Chris wanted to talk to me today right. I’m meeting him at this football field. I think this goin be our last conversation,” she texted a friend. “He told me he was leaving, might be going to California or Hawaii. Imma find out when he get here but ain’t that good news?!?”
A friend and Pierce-Morris’ mother told police Rather had become obsessed with her.
Within days, a police SWAT team raided his home and arrested him. Rather told police he had two alibi witnesses, detectives wrote in charging documents.
However, “One witness admitted that Mr. Rather had asked the witness to lie for him,” police wrote in charging documents.
As the trial continues, prosecutors say, they will present evidence that puts Rather in the bleachers. Cellphone signals place him at the scene, too, prosecutors say.
They noted something else discovered on her body: the picture from prom.