PHILADELPHIA — A pediatrician researching tuberculosis, HIV and other infectious diseases was strangled by an exterminator after she questioned his work and was then tied up with equestrian gear and set on fire, a prosecutor said Wednesday in opening statements at his murder trial.
Melissa Ketunuti, 35, had graduated from Stanford University medical school, worked in Botswana and spent about five years at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia as a physician and researcher when she was killed in January 2013.
The trail quickly led to exterminator Jason Smith, the last person known to have visited her three-story row house on a quaint, narrow downtown street. He had not called police to mention his appointment there despite headlines about the case.
"She was alive when I left her!" he blurted out when police arrived at his suburban home in Levittown, prosecutor Peter Lim said Wednesday in opening statements.
Smith ultimately told police that he strangled her after she demanded that he spray a foam product throughout her basement. The idea apparently miffed him.
"She wanted the whole basement foamed because of the mice," defense lawyer J. Michael Farrell said, reading excerpts from his client's police statement. "She told me I was incompetent. She said that I shouldn't be an exterminator.
"I tried to leave. ... She stood in my way," he continued. "I strangled her. I tied her up and set her on fire."
Smith bound the physician with her leather riding straps and piled books and papers on top of her before setting her body on fire to cover up the crime, Lim told jurors.
Farrell argued that police coerced a confession out of his client, whom he described as a person of somewhat limited intelligence who had worked for the suburban exterminating company for several years.
"Sometimes innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit," Farrell said.
Smith, now 39, this week rejected a plea offer that carried a 40- to 80-year term.
Ketunuti, a native of Thailand who came to the U.S. for college, had made it through the grueling first year of her three-year post-doctoral fellowship, an academic adviser testified. She was also pursuing a master's degree in epidemiology.
Dr. Susan Coffin met with her at the hospital for about 90 minutes the day she was killed to discuss Ketunuti's planned fellowship project on HIV and tuberculosis in Botswana.
"She was really happy to be able to find a research project to allow her to pursue her interest in working outside of the U.S. She was excited," Coffin said, as the victim's family and friends fought back tears in the courtroom.
Coffin described Ketunuti as someone with a gentle manner who was adept at working with sick children and their stressed parents.
"She said she was walking home. I was surprised," Coffin recalled. "I hadn't realized she had come in on her day off."
Ketunuti was found dead that afternoon. Her mother has started a memorial fund to allow other young doctors to pursue global health fellowships.