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Inside Criminal Justice

Murdered―and Missing

March 16, 2011 11:55:25 pm
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By Laura Amico

Latisha Frazier was reported missing in August 2010. Authorities believe she was killed in an attack by six people. Her body has not been found. Metropolitan Police Department flier

How do you prosecute murder cases when the principal evidence—the body of the murder victim—can’t be found?

Latisha Frazier, an 18-year-old mother living in D.C. who was working full time at McDonalds, and trying to go back to school, disappeared last summer soon after a friend accused her of stealing money from him.

Authorities believe she was the victim of a brutal attack by six people. According to court documents, Frazier was beaten, stomped, bound, taped, gagged, prodded and choked. Her head was covered with a sheet. Tossed into a closet, she finally died. Her body was thrown into a dumpster.

In January and February 2011, six people were arrested on suspicion of killing Frazier in August 2010: Johnnie Sweet, 17; Cinthya Proctor, 18; Anneka Nelson, 16; Laurence Hassan, 23; Brian Gaither, 23; and Lanee Bell, 17.  According to charging documents in the cases, all except  Bell  admitted to killing Frazier, detailing to police the gruesome ways they abused and injured her.

But while confessions have helped build the cases against the six defendants, one piece of evidence remains elusive.

Frazier’s body.

Investigators believe it was taken to a Virgina landfill when the dumpster was emptied. Now, more than six months later, it’s likely buried underneath at least 70 feet of trash and debris, Metropolitan Police Department Police Chief Cathy Lanier said. Searching for Frazier would take at least six months, cost more than $1 million and endanger those participating by exposing them to hazard and disease, Lanier said.

In the absence of a body, prosecutors are moving forward with a rare, but increasingly  common case: a so-called “no-body” homicide, where the burden of proof is not only to prove who killed the victim, but that the victim is in fact actually dead.

‘The Most Important Piece of Evidence’

“A body is clearly the most important piece of evidence,” said Tad DiBiase, a former DC prosecutor who keeps the nation’s most complete accounting for no-body murder prosecutions on his website No Body Murder Cases. “It gives you how the murder happened and when ... and where.”

But not having a body doesn’t mean that a case can’t be prosecuted. 

By DiBiase’s count, 334 murder cases have gone to trial in the U.S. without the evidence of a corpse since 1819. But it wasn’t until DNA evidence gained a foothold in murder prosecutions that those cases were aggressively pursued, DiBiase said.

Forty-four percent of all no-body homicide cases which DiBiase has been able to record in his database were prosecuted after 1999. Go back a decade further and that number jumps to 80 percent. Even in D.C. the pace has picked up: of the six “no-body” homicides on record, five of them were prosecuted since 2005.

“The case law says what you would hope it would say and that is a murderer should not be acquitted simply because they were successful in disposing of a victim’s body,” said Michael Brittin, an attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes crimes in D.C., and prosecutor in the case against Willie Carl Hankerson Jr, who pleaded guilty in 2002 to killing four people whose bodies were never found.

For those charged with investigating and prosecuting no-body homicides, the execution of justice is less direct than it is in cases with more compelling physical evidence. No-body cases are, by definition, circumstantial, Brittin said.

Investigators must draw on other evidence to make up for what DiBiase said was a “handicap” of prosecuting without a body. The most compelling no-body cases will still have physical  evidence, DiBiase said. DNA from a blood spot in a defendant's car, for example, could prove that the victim, at least, was present in the defendant's car and injured. Other evidence can draw a similar ghostly outline of a missing victim: a piece of hair or clothing, video of the person entering or leaving a building, records of the last phone calls made or received, all in addition to defendant statements, witness statements, weapon recovery and more.

Convincing the Jury

“You have to overcome the jury,” DiBiase said. “They will question: ‘how do you even know the victim’s dead?’”

“You have to think differently,” he added. “You do a lot more than in an ordinary murder case to eliminate innocent explanations and innocent people.”

Said Michael Brittin: “When you don’t have a body it raises the stakes for the other evidence. You’re unable to prove in many no body cases how exactly the victim was killed.”

Which may be exactly what attorneys charged with defending those arrested on suspicion of killing Frazier are counting on.

At a recent status hearing an attorney for Brian Gaither, suspected of first-degree murder in the Frazier case, sought to compel authorities to search for Fraziers body.

Physical evidence contained on Frazier’s remains could determine whether his client is charged with first degree murder or manslaughter,  Eugene Ohm, of D.C.'s Public Defender Services, said.

At issue, specifically, is the type of hold allegedly used to restrain Frazier when she was assaulted on August 1 in a Southeast D.C. apartment, according to the defendant’s accounts to police, Ohm said.   If the hold is determined to be a “sleeper hold,” also called a “blood choke,” and used frequently in martial arts, that would be grounds for a manslaughter charge.  If it is a “choke hold,” also called an “air choke,” and generally considered to be more dangerous than a sleeper hold because it compresses a person's airway, that could be a first-degree murder charge, Ohm said.

Ohm told Judge William Jackson that the best way to determine which hold was used is examining the victim’s body.  He urged the court to move quickly to secure Frazier’s remains, citing the warming weather’s quickening effects on decomposition.

“Timing is of the essence here,” Ohm said.

Ohm filed a written motion to compel authorities to search for Frazier's body this week. He declined to comment for this story, but wrote in the motion: “Mr. Gaither's case is prejudiced because he is unable to prove whether his alleged actions contributed to Ms. Frazier's death at all.”

A status hearing is scheduled in the case for June 10.

Below is a comprehensive list of D.C.’s “No-Body” murder prosecutions.

In 1984 Robert Ruff was convicted of killing Patsy Gaisior by shooting her and dumping her body in the Anacostia River in 1980. Gaisor was kidnapped in Harrisburg, Pa. while on her lunch break and driven to D.C., where she was sexually assaulted and then killed.   Ruff’s co-defendant in the case, when it was initially charged as a kidnapping admitted to relatives what had happened in D.C. and that testimony was used against Ruff.

In May 2002, Willie Carl Hankerson Jr. pleaded guilty to killing Eric Mitte, William Moore, Charles Winfield and Judson Fielding between May and December 1994. In 1999, according a sentencing report in the murder case, “when first confronted with the capital charge on April 23, 2001, Hankerson owned up not just to the murders of Winfield and Fielding, but also to the murders of William Moore and Eric Mitte, about which – before Hankerson’s startling confession – the government knew nothing... Hankerson’s truthful cooperation contributed not simply to the successful investigation and prosecution of others, but also resolved what for the families of four victims were disconcerting mysteries.

In February 2006,  Harold Austin was convicted of second degree murder for killing Marion Frye in November 2003. Frye's body was never found. Austin was sentenced to 42 years in prison. Austin died in prison in October 2010. DNA evidence found in a blood splatter on a mattress helped convict Austin.

In June 2006,  Michael Dickerson was convicted of killing Shaquita Bell in 1996. Bell was the mother of his child and a potential witness in a murder case against Dickerson. Dickerson pleaded guilty to second degree murder in the case, telling investigators that he shot Bell “in his parents' backyard, wrapped her body in a blanket, put her in the trunk of a car, drove her to the woods, and buried her in a deep hole.” As part of his plea, he agreed to help authorities find Bell’s remains, but her body has not been found.

In March 2010,  Terrence Barnett was convicted of second degree murder in the killing of Yolanda Baker, his wife and the mother of his twin children, in August 1999. Baker's body was believed to be in the trunk of her car, which was never found. Barnett was sentenced in June 2010 to twenty years to life imprisonment. An appeal was filed in his case in July 2010. DNA evidence found in blood in Baker’s trunk helped convict Barnett.

Laura Amico is editor of Homicide Watch D.C.

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