Billy Chemirmir found guilty in Texas serial killings, will spend rest of his life in prison
This is the second time a Dallas County jury has considered the case. A trial in November ended in a mistrial after one juror refused to budge, according to notes sent to the judge from that jury.
DALLAS — A Dallas County jury Thursday, April 28, found a suspected serial killer guilty of capital murder. Police say Billy Chemirmir preyed on elderly women in Dallas and Collin counties.
Chemirmir, who showed no visible reaction to the verdict, will spend the rest of his life in prison and could face additional trials. Police say Chemirmir smothered at least two dozen elderly women over two years, stealing their jewelry and other precious items. But jurors only heard about attacks on three women, and found Chemirmir is guilty of killing one of them, Lu Thi Harris.
The 81-year-old was found dead in her Dallas home in March 2018, after Chemirmir was arrested with jewelry and other items that belonged to her. The other two women are Mary Brooks, whose death in January 2018 was initially thought to be of natural causes but was changed after Chemirmir’s arrest, and Mary Bartel, who survived an attack in her retirement community apartment the day before Harris was killed.
Chemirmir, who has maintained he is innocent, did not testify. Chemirmir is a Kenyan immigrant with permanent resident status in the U.S. He stood with his arms crossed in front of him as state District Judge Raquel “Rocky” Jones sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. Chemirmir patted one of his attorneys, Mark Watson, on the arm before being taken back to jail.
Family members of the women Chemirmir is accused of killing erupted in cheers after he was lead out of the courtroom. Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, who helped prosecute the case, sniffed and blinked back tears. He said that the DA’s office will next prosecute Chemirmir in Brooks’ slaying.
This is the second time a Dallas County jury has considered the case. A trial in November ended in a mistrial after one juror refused to budge, according to notes sent to the judge from that jury. This week, jurors heard testimony over four days.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys rested their cases in the new trial Thursday morning and presented their closing statements in the afternoon. The jury began deliberations about 3:33 p.m. Chemirmir’s attorneys said they have already filed a notice they will appeal.
Chemirmir was automatically be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole because prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty. Jurors may also consider the charge of theft.
The new jury heard much of the same evidence that jurors heard in November.
The case against Chemirmir is circumstantial, prosecutors have said. But they believe the totality of the evidence shows Chemirmir had a pattern of smothering elderly women and stealing their jewelry to sell for profit.
“This idea that circumstantial evidence equals weak evidence is stuff of movies and books ... but it’s not real,” Creuzot said to jurors in closing arguments.
Jurors saw video surveillance footage from a Walmart on Coit and Arapaho roads on three separate days, including the day of Harris’ death.
On that day, March 20, 2018, the video shows Chemirmir and Harris in the store at the same time.
Defense lawyers challenged the video evidence by pointing out Harris arrived at Walmart nearly 40 minutes before Chemirmir and footage does not appear to show the two to speak with each other. Chemirmir drove out of the parking lot about two minutes before Harris, defense lawyer Kobby Warren pointed out.
Prosecutors sought to prove Chemirmir had a pattern of choosing victims at Walmart. Surveillance footage from another day showed Chemirmir standing outside the same Walmart in dark slacks, a white shirt and a blue tie with a phone to his ear, watching the parking lot intently. But a cell phone analyst testified that Chemirmir’s phone showed no record of incoming or outgoing calls during the time he loitered in the Walmart, suggesting that he pretended to be on the phone.
Prosecutors also showed Walmart footage from Jan. 30 – the day Mary Brooks was killed. A silver Nissan Altima parked next to Brooks’ car but the driver never got out. The car, which resembled the one Chemirmir drove, left when Brooks did. The footage never showed a license plate number or the driver.
Under prosecutors’ questioning, the cell phone analyst testified that Chemirmir’s records placed him in the area of the Walmart at the same time. But defense lawyers tried to cast doubt on the reliability of cell phone towers and the large swath of area they cover.
The defense’s strategy was also similar to the last trial. Defense lawyers Kobby Warren and Phillip Hayes cross examined the state’s witnesses more often, but like in the first trial they did not make an opening statement and they did not call any witnesses.
“In a criminal case, the most important thing that the state has to do is prove to you all that the person they’re accusing was at the scene ... They can’t place him there,” Warren said in closing arguments of Harris’ house.
Differences in strategy
Much about the two trials was the same. But prosecutors changed the order of witnesses and did not show some evidence that was a major part of the last trial.
The case they presented this week was largely chronological, placing witnesses in an order that showed how the investigation developed from the attack on Bartel, to Chemirmir’s arrest, to the discovery of Harris’ body, to the reinvestigation of Brooks’ death.
There were also subtle differences in how evidence was presented to jurors, like when lead prosecutor Glen Fitzmartin showed a photograph of Harris on a projector. The prosecutor then laid jewelry on top of the photo that Chemirmir had when he was arrested to show how it matched the items Harris wore in the photo.
“All of this stuff is actually not stuff. It’s evidence. It’s evidence of the guilt of Billy Chemirmir in the death of Lu Thi Harris,” Fitzmartin said forcefully in his closing argument. The prosecutor walked to the opposite side of the table where Chemirmir sat, looked down at him and pointed his finger.
Prosecutors did not show jurors video of Chemirmir’s interview with police officers from Dallas and Plano the night he was arrested.
In that hours long video watched by the first jury, Chemirmir denied involvement in either women’s deaths. He remained polite throughout the interview, and appeared surprised to be accused of murder. He told police he thought he was being questioned for an outstanding warrant for public intoxication.
“I just can’t believe this,” Chemirmir said. “Where I come from, our culture, we don’t even think about that. ... I didn’t murder anybody.”
Prosecutors might not have chosen to play the video in the re-trial because it created doubt in jurors’ minds that Chemirmir was guilty, said Robbie McClung, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor not involved in the case.
Defense lawyers attempted to get the video in, to no avail. Rules that lawyers must abide by prevent the defense from entering what is considered a self-serving statement because it takes away the prosecution’s ability to cross-examine the person.
“I think that was probably the downfall for them the last time. I think that’s what hung the jury,” McClung said. “It left some of the jurors wondering ‘Could it possibly be that he didn’t do it and we’ve got the wrong person?’” McClung said.
“That was a strategic move. The only way he would get his story out is if he took the stand,” McClung said.
On the heels of the November mistrial, Creuzot said his office was committed to trying Chemirmir for the deaths of Harris and Brooks.
Collin County prosecutors also have five indictments against Chemirmir for deaths there. Creuzot said he and Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis agreed Dallas County will try its cases first.
After Creuzot said last year he would not seek the death penalty, lawmakers and families of Chemirmir’s alleged victims called on Willis to do so. The Collin County DA’s office has declined to comment on the case.
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