PHILADELPHIA — An exterminator accused of strangling a pediatrician who questioned his work and then tying her up with equestrian gear and setting her body on fire has been convicted of first-degree murder, arson and related offenses.
Jason Smith, 39, faces a mandatory life term without the possibility of parole following Wednesday's jury verdict.
Defense attorney J. Michael Farrell told The Philadelphia Inquirer that Smith, who earlier rejected a plea offer that carried a 40- to 80-year term, would appeal.
Prosecutors said Smith killed Dr. Melissa Ketunuti in her Center City row home in January 2013. Ketunuti, 35, had spent about five years as a physician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia while researching tuberculosis, HIV and other infectious diseases.
Prosecutors said Smith was the last person known to have visited her home and confessed shortly after his arrest. Prosecutor Peter Lim said Smith blurted out "She was alive when I left her!" when police arrived at his home in suburban Levittown but ultimately told police he strangled her after she demanded he spray a foam product throughout her basement, an idea that apparently miffed him.
"She told me I was incompetent," Smith said, according to a police statement. "She said that I shouldn't be an exterminator. I tried to leave. ... She stood in my way. I strangled her. I tied her up and set her on fire."
Smith, who declined to speak after the verdict, had taken the witness stand in his own defense a day earlier, testifying that he confessed because he was exhausted by a police interrogation.
Farrell, the defense attorney, described Smith as a person of somewhat limited intelligence and argued "sometimes innocent people confess to crimes they did not commit."
Ketunuti, a native of Thailand who moved to the U.S. for college, graduated from Stanford University medical school and worked in Botswana before moving to Philadelphia. She was pursuing a master's degree in epidemiology. Her mother has started a memorial fund to allow other young doctors to pursue global health fellowships.