A series of incriminating coincidences led a Charles County jury to yesterday's verdict that a Washington man is guilty of murdering an Alexandria woman, the jury's foreman said.
The panel deliberated about nine hours over two days to find Garrison Thomas guilty of second-degree murder and first-degree felony murder, a killing in the commission of a felony, in the 1995 slaying of Beverly R. Mitchell, 26.
Thomas, 44, also was found guilty of robbery for taking Mitchell's car. He faces a maximum penalty of life imprisonment in sentencing that Circuit Court Judge Richard J. Clark set for Aug. 12.
Mitchell's bludgeoned and strangled body was found in a field near La Plata. During an eight-day trial, no explanation emerged for why she was taken there, strangled and savagely beaten with a rock and a log.
But prosecutors managed to link Thomas to the victim's car in the hours after she disappeared, and to show he could have encountered her about the time she was last seen alive, said jury foreman James R. Gilliam Jr.
"It trailed right back to Garrison," Gilliam said.
He said jurors relied upon the testimony of Novella Lee Harris, the key prosecution witness but a habitual user of crack cocaine.
Harris testified that a man she later came to know as Thomas appeared at her home in Southeast Washington with the victim's car less than five hours after Mitchell disappeared.
Jurors had initial reservations about accepting the word of a drug user, Gilliam said. But, he said, when police checked out Harris's story, "this person [Thomas] lived at the house" where Mitchell was last seen alive.
"Plus he had no alibi," Gilliam said.
Members of Mitchell's family and their supporters expressed glee at the verdict.
"We waited 4 1/2 years for this. Excellent. Excellent outcome," said Stacey Findley, a family friend. "We knew this was the guy."
A defense lawyer had argued that Harris was not trustworthy. Public Defender Carl W. Buchheister suggested Harris, addled by continual crack use, was eager to lie to stay out of trouble with police.
"The issue is, are you going to convict Garrison Thomas of the most serious criminal offense based on the testimony of a person who is a liar?" Buchheister asked in closing arguments.
He said authorities had been unable to scientifically link Thomas to the victim's partially burned car or to the spot where Mitchell's body was found, now the Locust Hill housing development.
Harris testified that Thomas was wearing women's clothes when he appeared at her door. Buchheister said police had been unable to find evidence of cross-dressing, despite a search of Thomas's home and clandestine surveillance of the defendant.
The point was important because prosecutors sought to link the defendant to a brown wig fiber found in Mitchell's Mitsubishi Eclipse.
Assistant State's Attorney Matthew R. Stiglitz said it was not surprising that police could not uncover evidence of cross-dressing, which he called a furtive activity that Thomas took pains to conceal.
Two prosecution witnesses testified that they had encountered Thomas wearing women's clothes, Stiglitz reminded the jury.
Thomas was unable to show where he had been the night of the murder, Stiglitz said. The defendant told detectives shortly after the slaying that he had spent the night of Mitchell's disappearance -- March 22, 1995 -- wandering around Washington and sleeping in a bus shelter.
Stiglitz said Harris's testimony was consistent and credible, while acknowledging she had lied to police officers who interviewed her in 1995 by misstating her name.
Stiglitz pointed to what he called "little building blocks that add up to the defendant's guilt."
Evidence technicians found the dark brown wig fiber, consistent with Harris's testimony that Thomas wore a wig, Stiglitz said. He said Harris accurately described where the person who torched Mitchell's car poured gasoline. The flames expired for lack of oxygen long before the car was consumed.