Zahia Salem lived a humble life. She was born in Syria in 1920, immigrated to the United States, and became a citizen in 1939. She worked as a seamstress making women’s dresses. She never drove and would walk to church almost every day. As a widow, she refused to accept Social Security for almost two years because she thought it was welfare.
Salem, 87, was found murdered inside her South End apartment on Nov. 30, 1989, and her case went unsolved for more than two decades. But last year, a DNA sample that had been preserved from a cigarette butt found in her apartment matched a sample taken from a convicted felon in 1991 after a rape conviction. That felon, Charles Brook Jr., pleaded not guilty to Salem’s murder at his arraignment last year, but on Thursday, he changed his plea to guilty.
Brook had been scheduled to be released this year for his 1991 conviction. On Thursday, Judge Thomas Connors sentenced him to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years.
Salem’s body was found on her couch, covered with a rug. An autopsy revealed her face had been beaten, her ribs had been fractured, and that she had been sexually assaulted. Because the statute of limitations for sexual assault had expired, Brook was not charged with that crime.
Brook initially denied being inside Salem’s apartment and told detectives he met her at a Catholic thrift store and had helped her to her door because she was blind and needed assistance. He said he returned to the thrift store the day after he met Salem to retrieve his bike and learned from a clerk that she had been strangled.
Salem’s family was in the courtroom for Thursday’s sentencing of Brook, 67.
“We’re very thankful that someone was brought to justice,” said Keith Kahwajy, Salem’s nephew. “If they found Mr. Brook, they can probably find others, solve some of the other cases that are out there that families are hoping to find solutions to.”
Salem’s great niece, Beth Kahwajy Zdrojewski, gave a statement in Suffolk Superior Court, saying the family had been shocked by Salem’s death but was touched by the efforts of law enforcement to bring closure to the case.
The investigation represents the latest in a series of unsolved homicide cases that police say they have cracked by relying primarily on DNA evidence, the Globe reported last year. Improvements in DNA technology and more federal funding have helped law enforcement make arrests in old cases.
“We’ve found great success with DNA matches in cold case sexual assaults and homicides, but Massachusetts lags behind other states and the federal government in its use of DNA sampling,’’ said Daniel F. Conley, the Suffolk district attorney.
“Expanding its use to include a simple swab along with a booking photo and fingerprint card will only increase the number of cases we can solve and the speed with which we solve them,” Conley said. “It’s bad enough when a family like Ms. Salem’s loses a loved one to homicide. Their pain shouldn’t be compounded by a 20-year wait for justice.”