‘Backpage Murder’ Trial Opens, Ruling Could Take Weeks
MOUNT CLEMENS (WWJ/AP) - DNA and phone records will be critical evidence in the trial of a man accused of killing four women whom he met online and dumping their bodies miles away in his run-down former Detroit neighborhood, a prosecutor told jurors Thursday.
Prosecutor William Cataldo warned that the trial would be long and complicated. He quickly disclosed that the victims had met James Brown through Backpage.com, which carries personal ads about sex.
“These four beautiful young women were acting as escorts at this particular time. But in no way,” Cataldo said, his voice rising, “should that diminish this case. They are daughters, sisters, mothers of people who are here. That is what we need to remember.”
Later, the prosecutor said: “They didn’t deserve to die. There is no excuse for what happened.”
The bodies of 23-year-old Renisha Landers and 24-year-old Demesha Hunt were found in the trunk of a car left in Detroit in December 2011. Six days later, on Christmas Day, the bodies of 29-year-old Natasha Curtis and 28-year-old Vernithea McCrary were found in a burning car in the same neighborhood.
Police believe Brown, 25, killed the women in pairs, days apart, in the basement of his home in Sterling Heights while his mother slept upstairs. He is charged with first-degree murder and other crimes in Macomb County Circuit Court.
During his turn with the jury, defense attorney Jeff Cojocar said he wouldn’t dispute many facts, especially DNA, but added that it doesn’t mean Brown is guilty.
“Do these numbers tell them who killed them, how they died?” he said, referring to the DNA evidence.
“Any time a human being dies, it’s emotional. You can’t let that monopolize your thinking,” Cojocar told jurors. “Watch how they testify. Assess it in the grand scheme of things. … Don’t let emotion overtake your common sense.”
Brown’s DNA was found under the nails of victims, and blood from Curtis was discovered on a door and a bedroom pillow, Cataldo said.
The jury will hear hours of recorded police interviews with Brown. At previous court hearings, officers have said Brown admitted being with the women but couldn’t explain why they died in his home. Detroit detective Derryck Thomas testified that Brown told him that he fell asleep and found the women lifeless when he woke up.
Dr. Francisco Diaz, an assistant Wayne County medical examiner, testified that the victims died of asphyxiation, a lack of oxygen to the brain. Diaz said it’s possible for someone to be asphyxiated without a struggle, especially if the attacker is larger than the victim. Brown is a large, muscular man who could have killed the women as he sat on them, Diaz said.
Cataldo said there will be evidence of phone calls and text messages between Brown and some of the women before they met.
“He planned it. He executed it. He dumped the bodies, and he knew how to get back home,” the prosecutor said.
Brown is charged with four counts of first degree murder, four counts of disinterment and mutilation of a dead body, one count of arson of real property, and one count of arson of personal property. He faces life in prison if convicted as charged.
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