Lena Bruce and the stranger who broke into her Boston apartment one night in July 1992, raping and killing the 21-year-old, lived in “completely different worlds,” a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.
Bruce, a graduate of Tufts University, had recently landed a job at an engineering firm and was living with a college friend at 694 Massachusetts Ave. in the city’s South End. She spent most of her free time with her sorority sisters.
Her alleged killer, James Witkowski, who was 19 then but is now 45, lived at a nearby homeless shelter and spent his days drinking at a park, prosecutor Patrick Haggan said during his opening statement in Witkowski’s murder trial in Suffolk Superior Court.
For decades, Haggan said, Bruce’s killing went unsolved, in part because there were no eyewitnesses. There was no reason to connect the homeless man and the successful young graduate — not until a DNA match years later, Haggan said.
But when it was his turn to address the jury, Witkowski’s lawyer raised the spectre of a consensual encounter between Bruce and his client at some point before the killing, holding up a photo of Witkowski in 1992 and telling jurors “he’s not unattractive.”
Advances in DNA technology paved the way for a major break in the cold case a few years ago, when Witkowski had to provide his DNA to authorities after an unrelated conviction.
His sample was a match for semen found on Bruce’s body, as well as DNA found under her fingernails, “because she fought,” Haggan said. In addition, a slip of paper in a wallet found in front of Bruce’s apartment had a fingerprint that prosecutors say matched the defendant’s.
Repeatedly pointing to Witkowski, Haggan said the defendant tied Bruce’s wrists behind her back, “raped her, and killed her in her own bed” by suffocation. “Her air passages were closed up for quite a while. Lena Bruce did not die quick. Lena Bruce died slowly.”
Haggan insisted there was “no connection between” Bruce and the defendant that would explain “anything casual, consensual, or otherwise.”
Each time Haggan pointed at Witkowski, who has pleaded not guilty to a first-degree murder charge, Witkowski shook his head and appeared at one point to mouth the word “nope.”
Witkowski is not facing sexual assault charges because the statute of limitations has expired.
During his opening statement, Witkowski’s lawyer, Daniel Solomon, argued the DNA evidence tells the jury only one thing: that Bruce and Witkowski had “some form of sex” within a couple days of the slaying. But there’s no evidence, he said, that “puts him in that apartment” at the time of the murder. “They can’t put him there,” Solomon said.
He described Bruce as a “strong, capable woman” whose long nails weren’t broken after she died, despite the government’s contention that she fought. He said DNA can get under fingernails in different ways, noting that Bruce’s body showed no marks, bruises, or “signs of forced entry.”
Solomon also faulted the police investigation, telling jurors that officials failed to analyze several items at the crime scene, including two half-eaten pieces of fruit, a Heineken beer bottle, and multiple fingerprints inside the apartment.
His timeline for a sexual encounter between Witkowski and Bruce differed from the one offered by Haggan, who said the semen found on Bruce’s body was deposited within 24 hours of the slaying, not a couple of days.
And, Haggan said, Bruce socialized exclusively with her tight-knit circle of high-achieving sorority sisters and men from an affiliated fraternity.
The witnesses Haggan called after opening statements, including Bruce’s older sister, Glynis Bruce, and Lena Bruce’s close friend Eva Mitchell, a Harvard graduate and Boston Public Schools official, all said they never saw Witkowski with Bruce.
They conceded under cross-examination by Solomon that they hadn’t visited Bruce at her new apartment in the months leading up to the murder.
Glynis Bruce testified that her sister, whom she described as “the baby” of five siblings, had been accepted by several Ivy League schools before choosing Tufts and had “bragged about” her new job at the engineering firm after graduation.
She spoke to her by phone on the Saturday morning of the murder, and Lena told her she planned to sleep, and “then she was going to go out,” her sister testified. She said Lena told their now-deceased mother that she also planned to go furniture shopping.
The following day, Glynis Bruce said, she got a devastating call from their mother.
“My mom called me to tell me that Lena was dead,” she said, her voice composed. “Somebody killed her.”
Glynis Bruce struggled on the stand to recall the funeral date for her sister.
“I can’t remember that part,” she said. “It was just too sad.”
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.