The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that James Witkowski got a fair trial in 2017 on aggravated-rape and first-degree murder and charges for the death of Lena Bruce in her South End apartment on July 12, 1992, which means he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
The state's highest court said that the closing by the Suffolk County assistant district attorney who tried the case did not violate a rule against trying to place the jury in the victim's position and that the judge had not erred in the instruction he gave the jury to keep deliberating after they had told him they were initially deadlocked 6-6.
Bruce's case had gone cold until 2014 when Witkowski violated parole on a separate assault-and-battery conviction and he had to supply a DNA sample - which matched a sample that had been taken from Bruce at her autopsy, and which a Boston Police criminalist had submitted to a national DNA database in 2000.
Police re-opened their investigation, which led to Witkowski's arrest in 2015 and his trial and conviction in Suffolk Superior Court in 2017. In addition to the DNA evidence, one of Witkowski's fingerprints matched one found on a piece of paper on a discarded wallet police had found outside the apartment.
Bruce had earned her Tufts University diploma just two months before her death, as the first Black woman to graduate the school's electrical-engineering program. She graduated into a job at the now closed Stone and Webster engineering firm. On July 10, a Friday, she and her roommate at 694 Massachusetts Ave. near Harrison Avenue, were sitting on the stoop of their brownstone before the roommate left for a weekend trip, according to a summary by the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. The roommate was the last person, other than Witkowski, to see Bruce alive, although Bruce spoke to her boyfriend by phone the next day.
When the roommate returned home around 8 p.m. on Sunday, she called out her roommate's name, got no response, then knocked on the closed door of her room. When she got not response, she opened the door and found Bruce, "lying face down on her bed, naked from the waist down, with her hands tied behind her back with a telephone cord." The apartment was in disarray, the intercom had been ripped out of the wall and her answering machine and TV were missing. A beer bottle was found in the apartment - neither roommate drank beer.
Terrified, the roommate and the friend she had spent the weekend with ran down the street to Wally's, where they called police.
An autopsy showed Bruce had been raped and then suffocated.
The prosecution summary continues:
Subsequent investigation revealed that in July of 1992 the defendant often stayed at the Wood Mullins Shelter, which was located a few blocks away from the victim's apartment on Massachusetts Avenue. During the daytime he would panhandle and drink alcohol with a friend, Lere James, in the area in front of a Blanchard's Liquor store and Derby Park, both a few blocks away from the victim's apartment. The defendant and James would also hang out on the steps of a brownstone a few doors down from the victim's apartment. Larry Grant, who was dating the victim at the time of her death, noted the people on the street seemed aware of the victim's and Eden [the roommate]'s comings and goings and would remark to him whether the victim and Eden were home when he came to visit. Carmen Strachan, a friend of the victim and Eden, noticed the same, and remembered being concerned that the people in the neighborhood always seemed to know if the victim and Eden were home. The victim was described as street smart and reserved, and no one had seen the victim try to pick up men off the street or even engage them in conversation.
At an interview with homicide detectives on June 18, 2015, Witkowski said he didn't remember Bruce - but also said she was "pretty" - but said if they had sex it would have been consensual. He said he frequently had sex with women at Derby Park that he often tied women up and gagged them and then would leave them like that when he was done.
He denied murdering Bruce. After first deadlocking, the jury deliberated for another several hours and found him guilty.
He is currently housed at the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Lancaster.
Defense and prosecution briefs and Webcast of oral arguments.