Accused “Craigslist Killer”: Should Charge Be Murder, or Something Else?

In the past ten days or so, I’ve been asked by more than one person why accused “Craigslist Killer” Phillip Markoff has been charged with murder, and not a lesser crime, since there are not currently any witnesses who say they actually saw what happened. The formal charges against Markoff are murder of Julissa Brisman of New York City (on April 14 2009) and armed robbery and kidnapping of an additional victim on April 10, 2009 at the Westin Hotel in Boston’s high-end Copley Place. Is it not possible, some ask, that even if Markoff was the person who struggled with the murder victim, Julissa Brisman, and fired the gun that killed her, he may have been acting in some kind of self-defense? How can the police know enough to charge him with the most serious of homicide crimes, when they don’t have a witness?

The answer is that circumstantial evidence can still be used to charge a suspect with murder, even though there are no direct eyewitnesses to the killing. A suspect like Markoff is not at all prevented from advancing any particular defense he wishes (including self defense,) but that doesn’t mean a jury or judge would ever accept it as plausible. (Parenthetically, a defense invoking self-defense isn’t likely here, and would almost certainly fail, as the victim wasn’t armed, was shot three times and bludgeoned in the head. She weighed about 100 pounds; Markoff is over six feet tall and easily weighs 160-170 pounds.)

The earlier victim of kidnapping and armed robbery on April 10 2009 at the Westin hotel, later identified Markoff from hotel surveillance tapes. Police said they discovered forensic computer evidence showing that emails were sent from Markoff’s computer in his Quincy apartment to the victims, as well as forensic evidence of text messages sent from Markoff’s cell phone to the victims. Investigators also found plastic ties in the search of Markoff’s apartment, and several pair of women’s underwear that Markoff allegedly took from his victims. Notably, despite the discovery of this underwear, none of Markoff’s alleged victims were sexually assaulted. Police have alleged that Markoff booked appointments with prostitutes and “masseuses” who advertised on Craiglist, not to sexually assault them, but to rob them at gunpoint for cash to feed a gambling habit that he had. Investigators theorize that Markoff (logically) assumed that a) High-end, “private” prostitutes who book luxury hotel rooms for services likely carry large amounts of cash; b) In a locked hotel room, there would be no witnesses to the robberies; and c) No prostitute was going to fight a man with a gun, nor, more importantly to the plan, report the robbery to police. Logical enough thinking, if you’re a criminal. But police and prosecutors theorize that everything went wrong and ended in murder when Brisman tried to resist Markoff from robbing her and tying her up.

I’ll have more on why the legal charges are what they are here, in my next post.