Man accused of killing woman in church shouldn't be held criminally responsible, lawyer says

The late Evelyn Player, 69, was found dead at Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 16, 2021.
The late Evelyn Player, 69, was found dead at Southern Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 16, 2021. | Family handout

A man accused of murdering 69-year-old retiree Evelyn Player inside a bathroom at the Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore, Maryland, should not be held criminally responsible for her death, his lawyer argued as charging documents revealed how the praying grandmother fought her attacker to stay alive.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael S. Harrison told reporters at a press conference last Thursday that Manzie Smith Jr., a 62-year-old ex-convict with a lengthy rap sheet, was arrested and charged with Player’s Nov. 16 murder at Southern Baptist Church.

Smith’s attorney, Warren Brown, told Fox Baltimore Monday that even though his client had not yet been indicted, Smith has no recollection of the day Player was killed. Smith plans to plea not criminally responsible, Maryland’s equivalent to an insanity defense.

Manzie Smith Jr.
Manzie Smith Jr. | Baltimore Police Department

“This is not just somebody who just decides to murder someone. I don’t know whether he did it or not, quite frankly. But I do know that if he did do it, it has to be attributed to his mental health,” Brown said.

“He has a lot of baggage, mental health issues, whether it’s schizophrenia, bipolar, delusional thoughts. He’s been in and out of various mental health hospitals.”

An autopsy report on Player cited by CBS Baltimore shows that she suffered multiple stab wounds, including on both of her hands, which suggests she tried to defend herself. Police used DNA evidence to link Smith to the crime.

“It’s not something that you can really say every time there’s a struggle. You’re going to have a lot of DNA there. But if you can, scratching someone is definitely going to get DNA under their fingernails,” Rana Dellarocco, director of the Baltimore Police Department’s Forensic Laboratories, explained to Fox Baltimore.

“If you’re lucky enough to land a good punch and the person bleeds on you, then that’s going to give DNA from that suspect that’s going to get on you.”

Southern Baptist Church pastor, Bishop Donte Hickman, told the news outlet that he was “disgusted” by the argument Smith should not be held criminally responsible.

“I’m disgusted by that characterization of a man who brutally took a woman’s life in our church’s restroom for the disabled,” he said in a statement. “I cannot believe that someone that did this in our church so early in the morning didn’t premeditate this evil attack.”

Brown called the pastor’s statement “an emotional response to what’s going on,” but he could “clearly understand that.”

Player’s murder has made national headlines. Community members, along with city and state officials, agreed that it was the place where she was killed that made it especially shocking.

Just hours after her murder, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said her death inside the independent multi-campus church her family had attended for four generations was an “unspeakable, cowardly murder.”

He described her as a “dedicated member and staff member” of the church and her killer as “cowardice scum.”

Bishop Hickman also noted in the early aftermath of Player’s death that she had been intensely praying at the church days before her killing. Hickman said she was perhaps at the church early on the day she was killed for similar devotion.

“Typically, Evelyn would not come as early. We have other male sextons that come to the church; she just beat everybody here,” he said. “She had been praying all week, praying and crying, and she may have come to the church early to have some time to pray by herself.”

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