A Summit County jury took only four hours Monday to find an Akron man guilty of aggravated murder and rape for the April beating and strangulation of a 33-year-old woman at Mount Peace Cemetery.
Defendant Phillip L. Jones, 37, could face the death penalty when the next phase of the trial — to consider mitigating factors presented by the defense — begins Jan. 10, court officials said Monday night.
In closing arguments earlier in the day, prosecutors said scattered pieces of evidence found by police at the scene of the slaying were persuasive signs of a chase and struggle during the victim's final moments.
Testifying last week, Jones told the panel he accidentally killed the woman while they were having rough sex on a blanket on the cemetery grounds.
Jones said he simply ''went too far'' and heard a crack or popping sound as he placed his hands around the victim's neck after she asked him to heighten her arousal by restricting her breathing.
But Assistant Summit County Prosecutor Brian LoPrinzi told jurors that Jones' story was ''so absurd, so unbelievable, I hope that you don't even consider it.''
LoPrinzi said buttons from the victim's undergarment were found on a paved cemetery road at two points — the first about 30 feet from the body and the second about 45 feet away.
One of the victim's earrings also was found along the road, several yards below the woman's feet.
A jogger discovered the body of Susan Marie Christian-Yates, 33, on a Monday morning, April 23, near several headstones under a large tree in the eastern section of the cemetery off Aqueduct Street.
The Summit County Medical Examiner's Office determined that she had been beaten
and strangled and that the cause of death was asphyxiation.
Pointing to autopsy findings presented at the trial, LoPrinzi stressed his theory that there was a chase and struggle by telling jurors that Yates' feet were dirty — but her shoes were not.
''Her feet became dirty that night as she tried to run away from the defendant,'' he said.
Jones, 37, was charged with aggravated murder, murder and two counts of rape. He was found guilty of all charges in the trial held before Common Pleas Judge Mary F. Spicer.
In addition to the state's theory that Yates was chased before her death, LoPrinzi showed the jury police photos of two pieces of crime-scene evidence apparently indiciating there had been a struggle.
One was a hair band with a thick strand of the victim's hair torn away, and the other was the victim's neck chain, with another strand of tangled hair in the chain's links.
''So, who's telling the truth?'' LoPrinzi asked, attempting to differentiate between the state's theory and the defendant's testimony.
Jones testified that he encountered Yates early Sunday evening, April 22, as he was driving along Balch Street near West Market Street.
She was fighting with a man, slashing at him with a knife as the man was punching her, Jones said.
He said he broke up the fight, the man ran away and Yates got into his car and left with him.
Later that night, after stopping to get some beer and wine at a drive-through and making a crack cocaine buy on the street, Jones testified, he and Yates went to the cemetery and had consensual sex.
Defense lawyer Kerry O'Brien said the autopsy found cocaine in Yates' system and her blood-alcohol content was 0.096 percent, higher than the amount the state considers to be intoxicated.
O'Brien also told the jury that another male's DNA was found on the victim's breast area. Laboratory workers from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation had testified to that finding during the trial, he said.
That showed ''somebody else was there, somebody else was with Susan Yates,'' O'Brien said.