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A quarter century later, family confronts murder suspect

Catherine Phinney’s face flooded with a mother’s love Thursday on the stand when she looked at a photograph of her 20-year-old daughter, ­Janet, who was strangled and dumped into the woods behind the family’s West Roxbury home 25 years ago.

“Oh, she looks mad,’’ ­Phinney told a prosecutor in a gentle moment describing a photo of her daughter when she was alive during a Suffolk Superior Court murder trial in which jurors had already seen photos of Janet Phinney’s brutalized body.

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Catherine Phinney spoke about her daughter as she testified against Michael Coker, ­Janet ­Phinney’s onetime boyfriend, who is accused of killing her on March 18, 1988. Prosecutors said Coker was “fixated and obsessed’’ with restarting the dating relationship Janet Phinney had ended.

In his opening statement, Assistant Suffolk District Attorney Mark Hallal said that the couple ­began dating in fall 1987 and that by the time Janet Phinney tried to end it in early 1988, she had ­become a heroin addict struggling to break free of both Coker and drugs.

But Coker relentlessly stalked her by telephone, at her home, and in the West Roxbury neighborhood where the ­Phinneys lived, he said. Hallal said that on March 18, Coker met Janet Phinney at her home on Cedar Road, where they had sex.

Janet Phinney’s mother, Catherine, testified about her daughter’s life and struggles.

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Janet Phinney’s mother, Catherine, testified about her daughter’s life and struggles.

Suddenly, he said, Janet Phinney bolted out the back door in the freezing cold without her shirt or her shoes, pursued by Coker. “He chased her out the back and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until every last breath was out of her, leaving her frozen body for her neighbor to find three days later,’’ Hallal said.

Hallal said Coker told ­Boston police he had not seen Phinney for at least a week ­before she was killed. But he said that Coker was linked to Phinney’s slaying by advances in forensic sciences that first ­established a DNA match with semen and then by science that shows Coker was intimate with Phinney within 24 hours of her death, not the seven days he ­asserted.

Defense attorney Norman Zalkind told jurors in his opening statement that forensic science supports the timetable Coker, who is now 50, has consistently provided to police in their intermittent investigations of the slaying.

Moreover, he said, many of the accounts of Coker stalking Phinney that the jury is expected to hear were never relayed to Boston police in 1988, but only surfaced in recent years when a homicide detective from West Roxbury reached out to his West Roxbury neighbors and Phinneys family, when the inves­tigation resumed in 2010.

“These people are coming here now, and they are remembering exact words,’’ Zalkind said, his voice rising. “You think about it! Twenty-three years ago! Just think about what you can remember from 23 years ago.’’

Zalkind added: “We are in America, ladies and gentlemen. We don’t convict people unless it’s beyond a reasonable doubt. And you will find so many doubts in this case, he should be acquitted by you.’’

Coker, who appeared to be wearing some sort of neck brace, had to move his entire torso to face the jury. In doing so, he found himself face to face with Phinney’s family in the front row of the courtroom.

While on the stand, Janet Phinney’s mother looked ­toward Coker only once, and that was when ­Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke asked her to formally identify Coker.

Before the trial broke for the day, with Phinney still on the stand, she said her daughter seemed withdrawn and distant during her relationship with Coker.

But once Janet Phinney broke it off and turned her atten­tion to combating her drug abuse, both her physical appearance and her demeanor changed, her mother said. She lost weight through physical exer­cise, tried to cut off the people she knew when abusing drugs, and stayed mostly at home.

Outside the courtroom, her brother, Ron, spoke about the difficulty his family is experiencing as they see crime scene photos of Janet Phinney’s body and watch as the family matriarch is forced to stay in the same room with the man ­accused of killing one of her seven children.

“It was pretty tough to see her up there, reliving what’s happened,’’ he said. “It’s pretty tough.’’

He said Janet Phinney has remained a presence in their family, especially with their mother.

“She brings up old stories, sometimes over and over again, old stories,’’ he said. “She brings her up quite a bit.’’

John Ellement can be reached at ellement@globe.com.
Follow him on Twitter
@jrebosglobe.com.
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