BOSTON – After Sandra Berfield was killed when a package bomb exploded in her arms, police immediately zeroed in on a man she said had stalked her for months and vandalized her car.
Steven Caruso was a regular at the restaurant where Berfield worked as a waitress for 12 years. He would come in every day, sometimes twice a day, and spend hours sitting in Berfield's section, staring at her.
Berfield complained that after she rejected Caruso's request for a date, he began stalking her. He was convicted in 1999 of slashing the tires on her car and pouring battery acid in her gas tank.
Eight months later, in January 2000, Berfield walked out to her front porch and picked up a package addressed to her. The pipe bomb inside exploded, killing Berfield instantly.
Now, 13 years after Caruso was convicted in Berfield's killing, he is asking the state's highest court to grant him a new trial. The Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments Friday in the highly publicized case, which led to new protections for women against stalkers.
In his appeal, Caruso insists he is not the person who put the mail bomb on Berfield's porch. He also cites a litany of legal reasons he should get a new trial, including the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who Caruso says fabricated a story about him incriminating himself in Berfield's killing during a conversation the two inmates had in a prison hospital cell.
"So much of the evidence is so obviously unreliable that he plainly did not receive a fair trial," said David A.F. Lewis, Caruso's attorney.
Prosecutors, however, say there was plenty of evidence for the jury to convict Caruso of first-degree murder, including his history of stalking her, a ripped-up manual on how to build a bomb found in the trash at his home and detailed dossiers he had on Berfield and her relatives.
Berfield, 32, worked at a Bickford's restaurant in Medford, just north of Boston. According to testimony at his trial, Caruso, a longtime regular customer, began insisting on sitting in Berfield's section beginning in 1996. For a couple of years, they had what Berfield described as "light conversations."
But in August of 1998, after Berfield declined Caruso's invitation to go to a movie with him, she told her manager she felt uncomfortable because Caruso insisted on sitting in her section, where he would stare at her while smirking. The manager asked Caruso to sit in a different area of the restaurant. The next month, Berfield's car was vandalized four times. Caruso was later convicted in three of the episodes and spent several months in jail.
After the vandalism of her car, Berfield obtained a civil restraining order against Caruso. In court documents, Berfield accused Caruso of stalking her at home and at the restaurant. "He was told that I wouldn't wait on him anymore ... because he was scaring me and making me uncomfortable," she wrote.
Caruso denied the allegations, attributing them to Berfield's "hysteria," according to court documents.
At the time, criminally enforceable restraining orders were only granted for people who were related to or dating their alleged stalkers. Because Berfield never had a relationship with Caruso, that option was not available to her.
After Berfield's death, her family waged a decade-long campaign to change the law. In 2010, the law was changed to extend criminal protection orders to victims of stalking and sexual abuse who do not have a dating or familial relationship with their perpetrators.