CLEVELAND – Jurors began deliberating the fate of a Cleveland man accused of killing 11 women Wednesday after prosecutors gave them a final glimpse of the drug-addicted victims who they said vanished into a house that smelled like death.
"Let me give you 11 reasons why he should be found guilty," said Assistant Prosecutor Pinkey Carr, who paused as she held up a photograph of each victim for the jurors to see. Flanked by his attorneys, Anthony Sowell blinked rapidly but appeared composed throughout closing remarks.
Sowell, 51, has pleaded not guilty to a massive 83-count indictment, which includes charges of aggravated murder, kidnapping and abuse of a corpse. In addition to the 11 deaths, he is charged with attacking and raping several other women. Those women testified during the trial.
Defense attorney John Parker launched a counterattack in his closing argument, questioning the credibility of several witnesses and criticizing police officers for failing to properly investigate when the victims' families tried to report them missing.
"This man is an honorably discharged United States Marine force veteran," Parker shouted. "He deserves better."
Sowell faces the death penalty if convicted. The jury will be sequestered at a hotel each night until a verdict is reached.
Carr told jurors that Sowell is "sneaky and conniving" and enjoyed choking women.
"He had to look them in the face and suck the life out of them," she said. "That's a mean, evil-spirited person. That's a killer."
Assistant Prosecutor Richard Bombik looked visibly disgusted as he went through the disappearances of the women and described, in graphic detail, how their bodies were uncovered in Sowell's house over the course of several days in late 2009. Photographs of the victims' blackened skeletal remains lying on autopsy tables and the tattered ligatures found wrapped around their necks — shoelaces, socks, an electrical cord — flashed on a projector screen as he spoke.
"It's time," Bombik said, "to label him for what he is. A serial killer. And a vile and disgusting one at that."
Bombik summarized the gruesome testimony that has unfolded over the course of several weeks, stressing the key facts upon which the prosecution has built its case. He emphasized, repeatedly, that nearly all of the women were killed by ligature strangulation and were nude from the waist down, and that trace evidence found in the house ties Sowell directly to their deaths.
A skull and one body were found in the basement, four bodies were found on the third floor and five more were buried in shallow graves in the backyard.
"This case begins and ends with a certain house on Imperial Avenue," Bombik said.
But Parker told jurors they must decide whether the prosecution proved who actually killed the women — at one point suggesting that more than one person may have dragged the bodies around the house. He also cast doubt on the credibility of the five women who testified that Sowell attacked them, noting that they had struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues.
"Just remember that the way they appeared here in court is not the way they appeared on the streets," he said.
Parker repeatedly went after Cleveland police and the coroner's office, saying their investigation of the murders was "equally horrifying" and that they failed to produce DNA evidence linking Sowell to the killings.
The defense did not call a single witness during the trial.
The prosecution stressed that testimony from several witnesses proves Sowell lived in the house — something that the defense has sought to disprove during its cross-examination.
Bombik took pains to connect the dots of each disturbing fact to the jurors, mentioning in particular testimony by a woman who said she was attacked by Sowell. During the alleged attack in September 2008, the woman testified, she saw a headless body propped up in an upstairs room of Sowell's house.
"And who just went missing a few months earlier? Leshanda Long," Bombik told the jury. "Down the road, you'll learn that Leshanda Long is the head in the bucket in the basement. The timing of her testimony ... of what she observed is just chilling."
Prosecutors say Sowell lured the women to his home with the promise of alcohol or drugs. Police discovered the first two bodies and a freshly dug grave in late 2009 after officers went to investigate a woman's report that she had been raped there.
Many of the women found in Sowell's home had been missing for weeks or months when their bodies were found.
After the lunch break Wednesday, Judge Dick Ambrose told the court that one juror grew faint and had to be transported by ambulance to a hospital after the morning session. The juror was replaced by an alternate.
Reporters saw the woman crying as she was helped out of the courtroom. Three alternate jurors remained.
Jury deliberations are expected to resume on Thursday morning.
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