A former Hyde Park resident could spend the rest of his life in state prison after being convicted on Wednesday of second-degree murder in the strangling death of his 20-year-old former girlfriend in 1988, prosecutors said.
A Suffolk Superior Court jury handed down the verdict against Michael Coker, now 50, whom prosecutors said had stalked Janet Phinney, his ex-girlfriend, before strangling her on March 18, 1988 in West Roxbury.
“This isn’t closure,” said one of Phinney’s siblings, Ronald Phinney, 52, in a phone interview. “This is justice. Closure, as we stated, that’s going to be an individual journey that each one of the family members ... and friends are going to make on their own. Some may get there, and some may not.”
He added, “We were glad that the jury came to the conclusion that we’ve already known for the last 25 years—that Michael Coker was guilty of this crime.”
After jurors returned the verdict, Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Locke sentenced Coker to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 15 years, the mandatory penalty for second-degree murder, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office said in a statement.
Had jurors convicted Coker of first-degree murder, he would have faced a life term without the possibility of parole.
Coker’s lawyer, Norman Zalkind, said his client will appeal.
“The case never should have gone to the jury,” Zalkind said. “I don’t think there was enough evidence to go to the jury.”
He said of Coker, “He knows there’s a strong appeal. From that point of view, he knows we’re going to do what we have to do.”
Prosecutor Mark Hallal said at trial that at the time of the killing, Coker was obsessed with restarting the relationship that Phinney had ended. He stalked her by telephone, at her home, and in the West Roxbury neighborhood where she lived with her family, Hallal said.
Relatives filed a missing persons report two days after she disappeared, and her remains were discovered in a wooded area behind her Cedar Road home on March 21, 1988, according to Conley’s office.
Coker was charged with her murder in 2011, after testing revealed a match between DNA recovered from Phinney’s body and a sample that he had submitted to a law enforcement database following a felony conviction for motor vehicle theft, Conley’s office said.
Prosecutors said the scientific evidence showed Coker was intimate with Phinney less than 24 hours before she died, not several days earlier as he asserted.
Zalkind said on Wednesday that he thought a defense expert testified convincingly that the evidence showed the sexual relations occurred within the longer time-frame.
Witnesses testified that shortly before Phinney disappeared, they saw a man who resembled Coker pacing in the area and asking to use a phone at a local business, and later arguing with her, Conley’s office said.
Zalkind attempted at trial to discredit witness accounts of Coker stalking Phinney, noting that some people were recalling “exact words” they had heard two decades after the fact.
Conley hailed the conviction in a statement.
“From beyond the grave, Janet Phinney gave investigators the evidence we needed to solve her murder and gave jurors what they needed to convict him,” he said. “A quarter century after her life was taken in an act of domestic violence, her killer was held to account. I hope her family can take some solace in knowing that justice has been done at long last.”