DALLAS -- The retrial of a man charged with killing 18 older women in the Dallas area over a two-year span is set to begin Monday, after the first jury to hear a case against him deadlocked.
Billy Chemirmir, 49, faces life in prison without parole if he's convicted of capital murder in the smothering of 81-year-old Lu Thi Harris. Prosecutors have said he followed the widow home from Walmart, killed her, and stole her jewelry and cash.
Chemirmir faces capital murder charges in all 18 of the women's deaths — 13 in Dallas County and five in nearby Collin County. However, he's currently only scheduled to stand trial in the death of Harris. Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, who isn't seeking the death penalty for Harris' killing, has said he plans to try Chemirmir for at least one more death, though he hasn't said whose.
Chemirmir has maintained that he's innocent.
Loren Adair Smith, whose 91-year-old mother, Phyllis Payne, is among those Chemirmir is charged with killing, said she was shocked by the mistrial in November and plans to attend the retrial.
“We want justice and we want closure, and we want him to not be able to hurt anyone again,” Smith said.
Chemirmir was arrested in March 2018 after 91-year-old Mary Annis Bartel said a man forced his way into her apartment at an independent living community for older people and held a pillow over her face. Bartel, who survived the attack, later discovered she was missing jewelry.
According to police, when officers tracked Chemirmir to his nearby apartment following that attack, he was holding jewelry and cash. Documents in a large red jewelry box that police say he had just thrown away led them to a home, where Harris was dead in her bedroom, lipstick smeared on her pillow.
The number of people Chemirmir was accused of killing grew after his arrest, with most of the families of his alleged victims only learning months or years after their loved one’s death that authorities believed they had been killed.
Most of the people Chemirmir is accused of killing were found dead in their apartments at independent living communities for older people, where he allegedly forced his way in or posed as a handyman. He’s also accused of killing women in private homes, including the widow of a man he had cared for in his job as an at-home caregiver.
Though Chemirmir was only tried in November for Harris' death, jurors were also told about the attack on Bartel and the killing of 87-year-old Mary Brooks, who was found dead in her home about six weeks before Chemirmir's arrest.
Chemirmir told police in a video-recorded interview that was played at his trial that he made money by buying and selling jewelry and had also worked as an at-home caregiver and as a security guard.
Chemirmir’s attorneys rested their case without calling any witnesses or presenting evidence. They dismissed the evidence against their client as “quantity over quality” and asserted that prosecutors hadn't proved Chemirmir’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Prosecutor Glen Fitzmartin disputed that assertion. He said he proved that Chemirmir and Harris were at a Walmart at the same time, that two-and-a-half hours later he was in possession of her property and that she had been smothered.
Creuzot told The Dallas Morning News: “Circumstantial evidence can sometimes be stronger than eye-witness testimony. So, in a case like this, it’s very important that the jury and every individual juror understands that."
Toby Shook, a former Dallas County prosecutor who now works as a defense attorney, said he expects that during the retrial, prosecutors might "change up their preparation or presentation of some of their witnesses in order to make their case clearer to the jury.”
“It was surprising that a hung jury resulted in that the state had the advantage of putting on several offenses for the jury to consider and that’s a powerful weapon the state has in a case like this,” said Shook, who isn't involved in the case.
Smith said her family assumed that her mother's death six years ago in her apartment in an independent living center was from natural causes, though it came as a shock because she was still so active. She said that while packing up her mother's things, they discovered missing jewelry and filed a police report but assumed the items had been taken by someone after her death.
Smith said a police detective called two years later to say investigators believed her mother had been killed. She said that after so many years, a conviction would bring closure and “a great feeling that justice has prevailed.”