Prosecutor says ‘fixated and obsessed’ ex-boyfriend strangled W. Roxbury woman in 1988

Michael Coker looks towards someone in a Suffolk Superior courtroom where he is on trial for murdering his estranged girlfriend, Janet Phinney, outside her West Roxbury home on March 18, 1988. A photograph of Janet Phinney is in the background. Coker has pleaded not guilty.
Michael Coker looks towards someone in a Suffolk Superior courtroom where he is on trial for murdering his estranged girlfriend, Janet Phinney, outside her West Roxbury home on March 18, 1988. A photograph of Janet Phinney is in the background. Coker has pleaded not guilty.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

A prosecutor told a jury today that circumstantial evidence links Michael Coker to the 1988 murder of Janet Phinney in West Roxbury, saying that a “fixated and obsessed” Coker strangled the woman who had broken up with him.

But Phinney’s defense attorney said the state would not be able to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

“We are in America, ladies and gentlemen. We don’t convict people unless it’s beyond a reasonable doubt. And you will find so many doubts in this case, he should be acquitted by you,” Norman Zalkind told the jury in opening statements in Suffolk Superior Court.

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Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Mark Hallal said Coker was obsessed with Phinney, who was 20 at the time, after they had broken off their “tumultuous relationship.”

He said that the two had sex one day in March 1988 and “when it started to go bad, he chased her out of the back door, and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until her last breath was out of her body.”

Zalkind said a defense expert would cast doubt on prosecution forensic experts’ finding that the two had sex just before Phinney was slain. And he suggested that the couple had a better relationship than the prosecution asserted.

Coker, who appeared to be wearing some sort of neck brace, had to move his entire torso to face the jury. In doing so, he found himself face to face with Phinney’s family in the front row of the courtroom.

Phinney went missing from her home on March 18, 1988. Her body was found in the woods behind her house three days later.

Judge Jeffrey Locke is presiding over the case.