San Francisco Superior Court jurors today found Lee Bell guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Pearla Louis, whose body was found in a suitcase floating in San Francisco Bay seven years ago. Bell, 55, was Louis’ boyfriend and the last person she was seen alive with on May 16, 2010, a day before her family reported her missing, according to prosecutors.
Her badly beaten body was discovered the morning of May 18, curled up naked inside a large suitcase that washed up near The Embarcadero and Folsom Street. The medical examiner determined that she had suffered 30 bleeding injuries and died of strangulation. The death of Louis, a 52-year-old San Francisco resident, became a rallying point for those seeking to reform the city’s handling of domestic violence cases.
An investigation found she had told medical personnel and others on multiple occasions that Bell was beating her, but miscommunications and mistakes hampered the police investigation. Beverly Upton, executive director of the San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, said the city has improved its handling of such cases since 2010, but still has work to do to prevent deaths such as Louis’. “We used to lose 10 to 12 people a year to domestic violence homicides, and now its two to three,” Upton said.
“We want to see it down to zero.” Assistant District Attorney Michael Swart today said the verdict marked the end of a “long, emotional road” for him, but even more so for Louis’ family. Swart noted that Louis daughter, Ayesha Louis, has attended nearly every court date. “I think this has finally provided her some sort of closure,” he said. “I can’t imagine the emotional toll that it’s taken on her.” The case took seven years to come to trial in part because Bell changed attorneys more than once. Defense attorney Malcolm Smith said he was assigned to the case just last July.
During the trial, Smith worked to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, which relied on circumstantial evidence including DNA on the suitcase handle and video of Bell retrieving a similar suitcase a day before Louis’s body was discovered. Smith noted a lack of injuries on Bell and a lack of noise complaints or other signs of disturbance in the hotel where he was staying the night Louis was presumably killed. Smith today said he was somewhat surprised the jury came back with a first-degree murder verdict, rather than second-degree, but declined to question the jury’s decision.
He noted that the “politics” of the case could have influenced the jury, as did Bell’s penchant for outbursts in court. “That probably didn’t help,” he said. “If you’re on trial for this kind of offense, it doesn’t help to show that you have a lack of impulse control.” Bell remains in custody without bail, and will be sentenced at a future date.