A man who strangled his girlfriend and then stuffed her battered body into a suitcase and threw it in the San Francisco Bay in 2010 was convicted of first-degree murder in San Francisco Superior Court on Thursday morning.
Lee Bell, 55, was found guilty of murder for the May 16, 2010, killing of 52-year-old Pearla Louis, whose body was found in a suitcase floating near the Embarcadero several days after she was last seen in lower Nob Hill SRO arguing with Bell. He was arrested and charged the following month.
Much of the case was built on circumstantial evidence, said Michael Swart, the prosecutor, including DNA evidence found on the suitcase, video footage and witnesses who knew of the pair’s violent relationship. Still, no one saw the murder and it is unclear where the killing took place.
“The history of domestic violence was another piece to the puzzle,” said Swart.
Defense attorney Malcolm Smith said that his strategy was to convince the jury to look at the evidence of the case and not let Bell’s 15 years of alleged domestic violence color the jurors’ minds in the trial.
“The tactic was to get them to look at the evidence of the crime,” he said, pointing out that a big piece of that evidence was that the suitcase in which Louis was found was not the same one Bell was recorded on video taking to his room in the Harcourt Hotel after the killing.
Jurors questioned by the two lawyers after the verdict said that DNA evidence on the suitcase was part of their decision, but they also spoke about the verdict’s impact on Louis’ family.
“I hope that this provides some level of closure,” said the jury forewoman to the two lawyers.
Beverly Upton, executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, said the case is a vindication.
“We are hoping to see some closure, some accountability and some justice and healing for the family,” said Upton, noting that there are still on average two domestic violence homicides each year in San Francisco.
Earlier this month, city officials announced a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women to fund a pilot program in the Bayview District to provide new services and police protocol to help better identify the most at-risk domestic violence victims and connect them with support.
City officials hope to expand the program citywide, the San Francisco Examiner previously reported.
Bell gave little sign of emotion and remained silent in court as the jury’s verdict was read.
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