Fighting back tears, Barbra Eden said Thursday that her life “spiraled into roads I never imagined traveling” when she discovered the body of Lena Bruce, her friend and roommate, in the South End apartment they shared in July 1992.
Bruce, a 21-year-old Tufts University graduate, had been raped and murdered in a case that went cold for more than two decades, until DNA evidence linked James Witkowski to the crime two years ago.
Eden confronted Witkowski, now 45, on Thursday in Suffolk Superior Court, where he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for suffocating Bruce in her own bed. A jury convicted him of first-degree murder on Monday.
Eden had attended Tufts with Bruce and described her as “my friend, my family.”
“Never in a million years did I imagine that less than nine weeks later after graduation day [in 1992], I would have found my dearest friend Lena, whom I loved as though she were my family, viciously hurt and disgraced as a result of a horrible act by a horrible person whom is being sentenced here today,” Eden said.
Witkowski, wearing jail garb and glasses with his ankles shackled, sat with his lawyers as Eden spoke. He did not speak during the brief hearing in Courtroom 907, which was packed with Bruce’s friends and relatives.
Some supporters held her photograph with the phrase “Justice for Lena Bruce” emblazoned across the picture.
One family friend, Derrick Greene, read a victim impact statement authored by Bruce’s sisters.
“She impacted people wherever she journeyed in life, including Boston,” the sisters wrote. “We will never see what more she would have accomplished in life with her crazy genius self. We will never see her wedding day or her children who without a doubt would have been geniuses just like their mother.”
They also thanked investigators and the prosecution team for their tireless pursuit of justice for their sister.
“We’ll miss her super smile, and her regal walk, and her contagious laugh, and her taking us for our money any chance she got,” the siblings said.
Prosecutors said Witkowski, then a homeless 19-year-old and heavy drinker, sneaked into Bruce’s apartment, bound her wrists with a cord, and raped and suffocated her. The crime went unsolved for decades, but a DNA match finally broke the case open in 2015.
Witkowski wasn’t charged with any sex crimes because the statute of limitations had passed.
Witnesses at trial said Bruce spent most of her free time with a tight-knit group of sorority sisters involved in community service.
A scholarship at Tufts, the Bruce-Griffey Leadership and Diversity Internship Fund, was established at the university last year in the names of Lena Bruce and Anita Griffey, both sisters of Delta Sigma Theta. Griffey died in 1990 in a car crash, one month before her graduation.
The scholarship supports students who are committed to public service.
District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, said Bruce’s friends “really uplifted us” during the trial.
He also called for changes to state law that would require people charged with serious crimes to submit DNA samples when they’re arrested, bringing Massachusetts in line with more than 30 states and the federal government.
He said Witkowski, who was arrested several times in the years after the murder, could have been identified as the perpetrator far sooner had the law been different.
“Here in Massachusetts I find that we’re behind the curve on this,” Conley said.
Bruce’s sisters, though, expressed gratitude in their statement, despite the long wait for a resolution to the case.
“Our family thanks the court system by letting everyone know that this black life mattered,” they said. “We get to enjoy the next passage of our lives while enjoying this victory for our diamond that now has her star shining brightly in the sky.”