Suspect charged in 1988 slaying

Reexamination of DNA solidifies timeline, DA says

By Ben Wolford
Globe Correspondent / June 30, 2011

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Michael Coker told police investigating the death of his former girlfriend 23 years ago that he had not seen her in more than a week. But yesterday, prosecutors said they can prove he was lying and charged him with first-degree murder in Suffolk Superior Court.

A new analysis of DNA evidence, they alleged, places Coker with West Roxbury hairstylist Janet A. Phinney within 24 hours of her death in March 1988.

“The advances of DNA have been able to disprove a statement that this defendant made years ago that he hadn’t seen the victim for many days before she disappeared,’’ said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley.

Coker, 48, pleaded not guilty and stood silently during his arraignment yesterday. His attorney, Norman Zalkind, said before the hearing that “he emphatically says he didn’t commit this murder.’’

Phinney’s partially clothed body was discovered in a secluded, wooded area of West Roxbury known as The Grove on March 21, 1988; she had been missing for three days. A medical examiner later determined she had been strangled.

Police interviewed Coker on March 22, and he told detectives he had not seen Phinney in eight days.

Authorities could not link Coker to the death. No one was charged, but Coker remained a person of interest.

In 2004, Boston detectives linked semen recovered in 1988 from Phinney’s body to Coker’s genetic information on file from a previous conviction.

“The fact that his semen was found in her body was certainly proof that he was having sexual relations with her, but we couldn’t say when,’’ Conley said.

Then last year, forensic scientists once again examined the DNA sample, this time with a new ability to pinpoint the sperm deposit to within 24 hours of Phinney’s death.

“During the autopsy, the medical examiner took swabbings from the vaginal area of Janet Phinney,’’ Assistant District Attorney Mark Hallal said during the arraignment.

“Those swabbings revealed the presence of sperm back in 1988,’’ he said. “In 2010 and early 2011, the Boston police crime lab reexamined the vaginal swabbings and noticed that there were full, intact sperm, indicating that Michael Coker had sexual intercourse with Janet Phinney within 24 hours of the time of her death.’’

The head and tail of sperm begin to separate after a day or two, said Daniele Podini, a forensic scientist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“If you find a lot of intact sperm, very few days or very little time has passed,’’ he said in a telephone interview.

Coker and Phinney started dating in 1987 and were “heavily involved’’ in drugs, Hallal said. By early 1988, Phinney was trying to get clean and broke up with Coker.

On March 18, Coker left a series of voice messages at Phinney’s Cedar Road home demanding that she pick up the phone. Finally, Phinney’s sister, Karen, picked up and told Coker she did not want to speak with him, prosecutors said.

When Janet Phinney returned home, Karen Phinney told her about the calls and to be careful, Hallal said. Then Karen Phinney went to work, and no one saw Janet Phinney until a neighbor discovered her body in the woods three days later.

“No one in the family trusted him or thought that he was a good thing,’’ the victim’s brother — Ronald Phinney, 51, of West Roxbury — said after the hearing.

He said his family, many of them present at the arraignment, sometimes went years without hearing from investigators. “We were told over the years that he was in and out of jail, mostly in jail, and we were comforted by that,’’ Ronald Phinney said.

Coker was arrested in 1997 on charges of breaking and entering. In 1985, he and three other Deer Island House of Correction inmates stole an employee’s car and escaped while Coker was serving a year sentence for larceny of a motor vehicle.

Coker is being held without bail.

“It’s 23 years ago, so the difficulties are going to be pretty hard on everybody,’’ said Zalkind, the defense attorney assigned to represent Coker.

Ben Wolford can be reached at