In the months following her murder in 1992, Lena Bruce’s sorority sisters in the local chapter of Delta Sigma Theta held protests to try to force Boston police to carry out a more thorough investigation. They felt that area law enforcement had conducted a sloppy and incomplete examination of the crime scene and with little follow up. The Boston police countered that they were doing all they could, but the trail of Lena Bruce's killer grew cold. It would be years before a suspect was in custody and that was due to the persistence of friends, delayed but dogged police work, and what investigators call "the miracle of DNA." Solving the Lena Bruce mystery has also inspired Boston police to take a closer look at other cases involving other non-whites that often linger only in the memories of loved ones. 

Boston’s Cold Case unit

One day in the winter of 1996, Joe Sullivan from Atlanta was standing here in front of this brownstone on Massachusetts Avenue in the South End shaking his head and wondering aloud who murdered Lena Bruce? Sullivan, Lena Bruce's former boyfriend and confidant, was angry and frustrated by the lack of progress in the 1992 investigation, which was now at a dead end. So he had moved to Boston to see what else could be done. 

Returning to his apartment that night Sullivan was watching a network television program detailing how a new Boston police unit had solved a case that had stumped them for years.                                     

And when I saw that I said, ‘That’s it!,'" said Sullivan. "They can find out what happened with Lena. And I got the detective’s name.  I can’t remember his name anymore, but I called him and asked him if I could meet with him. He invited me up and they picked up her case with the Cold Case squad.”

The Boston detective’s name was Doogan, Sgt. William Doogan. “It's what I do.”

That year, 1996, he helped establish the department’s first Cold Case unit to stop, he said, people who were literally getting away with murder. 

“I'm assigned to the homicide unit. Everybody that's up there in the homicide unit first of all we’re type A. I have to be able to look myself in the mirror. If I’m looking at a case I gotta know that I did the right thing and above all that these people--somebody just ended their life and nobody’s got the right to do that and specifically Lena Bruce.”  

But Lena Bruce’s family and friends were skeptical. Almost without exception, high profile cold murder cases featured by media focused on white victims. And Lena’s friends were concerned that yet another black victim’s memory had been drowned in a cascade of faceless crime statistics.

“To the point that we started going down to her apartment to investigate ourselves,” said Eva Mitchell, one of Lena Bruce’s sorority sisters. She said that by 1996 her best friend’s memory had faded from whatever headlines there were at the time:  

“The press coverage was so minimal and nothing, I don’t remember if there was an article. Maybe there was one tiny [one] but it was almost as though, ‘does anybody in Boston know what happened?’ Does anybody care?”

The Miracle of DNA

But behind the scenes, two years after taking on the case, the Cold Squad unit, working with the Boston Police Crime Lab, examined DNA on swabs and fingernail clippings recovered from Lena’s body. The samples matched. A DNA profile was uploaded to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS, which was developed in the aftermath of the Genome Project. CODIS consist of two databases: One for people who have been convicted of violent crimes and the other containing DNA profiles from crime scenes in specific cases.  

“And so you can do two things with this database.”

Robin Cotton is an associate professor at Boston University and director of the Masters in forensic science program: 

“You can search the evidence samples against the convicted felon samples, and you can search the evidence samples against other evidence samples, which even if there was no match to a convicted felon, matches cases to each other and furthers investigations.”

The investigation into the murder of Lena Bruce had come to a standstill in 1998. A major break came in 2014 with the arrest of a petty criminal named James Witowski. Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley was familiar with the suspect.

“And since he had been convicted in 1994 by my office of a drug possession with intent to distribute charge, under our law he was required to submit a swab from the inside of his cheek and they developed a DNA profile from that. When it was compared to the crime scene DNA, we got a direct hit.

A grand jury was subsequently impaneled and looked at 58 exhibits of evidence. Cold case detectives traveled to Lena Bruce’s home state of Pennsylvania and other places to corroborate statements and to interview her sorority sisters. In 2015 Witowski was charged with Lena Bruce’s murder.

So neither Conley nor members of the Cold Case squad would talk specifics. But forensic science expert Robin Cotton believes that the DNA evidence connecting Witowski to Lena Bruce is strong.

“I know when there's a CODIS match that the evidence profile has to be nearly a complete profile or very close to it. it's very very unlikely that it would happen by chance, and so this is a very very strong investigative lead for the police department.”

Lena Bruce’s Impact

Spurred by the break in the 25-year old mystery, Boston police have begun highlighting other cold cases that have received scant public attention in a monthly website video. 

Said Boston Police Commissioner Bill Evans, “We're continually working together to publicize some cases. A little bit of information can help bring us to where we are today and getting someone and holding them responsible for murder committed years ago.”

But for all the profound changes of priority, Mary Franklin says not so fast.

“I’m still grieving,” said Franklin, the founder of Womens Survivors of Homicide. Spurred by the break in the 25-year old Lena Bruce murder mystery — on a windy day in June 2015 — she addressed a group of mainly black, Latino and Cape Verdean mothers at a “Cold Case Rally” in Government Center.   They demanded stepped up police action in solving the killings of their loved ones too.   Franklin’s husband, Melvin, was shot in 1996 trying to help a robbery victim. She said more resources are needed to solve the killings of black and brown victims in Boston and says the new Cold Case web campaign falls short.    

“A far as a web site and putting up pictures and things like that, that doesn’t interest me. It’s not like there’s no awareness. You have minority people who are murdered, their cases have not been solved in years.”

A Boston Herald examination of crime statistics in 2014 concluded, among other findings, that Boston police had solved only 38 percent of murders of black males compared to 79 percent of white males.

Last summer following the funeral for a slain black youth, Raekwon Brown, tips poured into Boston police and his killer was tracked down. Many believe Brown’s case was solved relatively quickly due to public pressure. Detectives looking back on how long it took to find Lena Bruce's killer believe the murder of Melvin Franklin and other less celebrated cases will also be solved, one day. In the past three years Boston’s murder clearance rate has improved from 47 to 57 percent — with added federal resources and assistance from researchers at Northeastern University. Advocates says the police in seeming to solve the Lena Bruce case also cast attention on other long-forgotten crimes affecting people of color.

Even in death, said Eva, “If anybody was going to make a big difference, it was Lena.”

Among those whom Mitchell credits with “finally” solving Bruce’s murder is Cold Squad leader Bill Doogan. The gruff-talking detective said he never met Lena Bruce, but will forever be indebted to her for shining a brighter spotlight on Boston’s other unsolved crimes.  

“Everybody that I talked to described her, from everything I learned, is that she was an absolute sweetheart. This was such a tragedy that she was taken from everybody under those circumstances. It’s horrible. And why do I keep doing it? Because I need to work on the next Lena Bruce, that’s why.”