On February 26, 2000, police discovered the body of 16-year-old Desiree Case, a prostitute and drug user, in an abandoned, unheated and trash-strewn apartment in Utica, New York. She had been stabbed multiple times and strangled.
Over the next year and a half, investigators conducted numerous interviews with prostitutes, drug dealers and others in the murky world that Case inhabited and ultimately narrowed their focus to Joseph Smith, a jail guard in Madison County.
Smith told them that Case was living with him and that they had a platonic relationship. He said he was trying to help her get off drugs and quit prostitution.
Police began investigating Smith and discovered that he had solicited a prostitute in the past and the encounter ended violently. In 1999, Smith picked up a woman in Syracuse who he said asked for a ride and then, after getting into his car, lunged for his wallet which was in his shirt pocket. A struggle ensued and he was slashed several times with a box cutter. Witnesses said Smith pulled over his car and the woman jumped out a fled, followed by Smith, who was pulling up his pants. The woman, who had previous arrests for prostitution, was convicted of misdemeanor assault for the attack.
In the spring of 2001, Smith resigned his job as a jail guard after he was charged with misdemeanor misapplication of property for giving a jail guard shirt to Case’s brother. The charge was dropped after the shirt was returned.
In November 2001, Smith, 33, was charged with Case’s murder. Authorities said they found Smith’s DNA under the victim’s fingernails. Smith was accused of killing Case, with whom he was living at the time she was murdered, because she had broken off their relationship.
Smith went on trial in Oneida County Court in March 2002. Among the prosecution witnesses was John Terry, who was an inmate in the jail at the same time Smith was awaiting trial.
Terry testified that Smith initially professed his innocence, but then asked hypothetically how Terry would feel if he was in love with a girl and thought she was pregnant with his child, but she wasn’t in love with him and was “sleeping with the whole town.”
Terry said he told Smith he would be upset and Smith agreed. “That’s when Mr. Smith said he didn’t mean for it to happen that way,” Terry told the jury.
Traycee Harris, a prostitute and friend of the victim, testified that she had tried to take Case under her wing and steer her to clients she believed were safe, such as Smith. She said she introduced Case to Smith in 1999 and Smith became a regular customer. She said she last saw Case on February 22, 2000, when Case and Smith drove by as she stood on the street.
Police testified that during interviews, Smith said he last saw Case about two weeks before her body was found and that he had consulted a psychic in an attempt to learn the identity of her killer. The psychic testified that Smith asked about a girl who had been stabbed 10 times—a fact police said had not been publicly disclosed.
The prosecution also presented the DNA evidence that linked Smith’s DNA to biological material found under Case’s fingernails.
The jury convicted Smith of second-degree murder on March 22, 2002.
On June 13, while Smith was awaiting sentencing, Oneida County District Attorney Michael Arcuri disclosed that he had found statements in police files showing that several witnesses had identified two men—not Smith—as being involved in Case’s murder. One of the men had admitted to the witness that he killed Case, according to the statements.
Smith’s conviction was vacated and he was released from custody on August 2. Arcuri said he intended to go forward with a retrial or possibly seek an indictment of Smith on a charge of having sex with a minor.
But on August 28, 2002, Arcuri dismissed the murder charge. Two days later, Earl Wright, who was in prison for a 2001 drug conviction that occurred after Case was murdered, was charged with killing Case. Subsequently, Michael Nero was also charged with the murder. Arcuri said the men, both drug dealers, killed Case because she had stolen $1,000 worth of crack cocaine.
In 2003, both men pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison.
Smith later filed a lawsuit against the Utica police department that was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
– Maurice Possley