Lawyers outline arguments in trial of man accused of Phoenix ‘canal murders’

The murder trial was decades in the making.

“I actually didn’t think about it until early this morning,” said District Attorney Vince Imbordino as he began his… opening statement Monday.

On November 8, Imbordino said it will be 30 years since Angela Brosso was murdered.

About ten feet behind him, in the spacious courtroom in downtown Phoenix, was the man accused of murdering her: Bryan Patrick Miller.

Flanked by his lawyers, he was dressed in a white button-up shirt and glasses, his expression hidden behind a blue surgical mask.

Prosecutors say he killed Brosso and teenager Melanie Bernas in two separate murders, 10 months apart, in the early 1990s. Known as the “canal murders,” because of where the victims were found, the brutal crimes scared Phoenix before it turned cold for 22 long years.

The trial of the accused murderer Bryan Patrick Miller, the so-called "Canal Killer"  is underway at Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix on October 3, 2022.

The trial of accused murderer Bryan Patrick Miller, the so-called “Canal Killer”, is underway in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix on October 3, 2022.

He faces two charges, each of first degree murder, kidnapping and attempted assault.

Miller says he is not guilty of insanity. He was charged in 2015, but his lawyers did not appeal the insanity for six years, until July 2021.

He I can’t remember what happened on the nights Brosso and Bernas died, his attorney Denise Dees said.

But Miller’s family, friends and expert witnesses are expected to testify that the man in court on Monday “is not the Bryan who committed these horrific offenses.”

Everyone had questions after the murders, Dees said. “Why did this happen? How did this happen?”

Miller had the same questions, Dees said. And to find the answers, the defense goes back more than 30 years, to his childhood.

the murders

On November 8, 1992, Angela Brosso left her apartment near Interstate 17 and Cactus Road for a bike ride. She was about to turn 22, but would never come home.

“Killed doesn’t really describe what happened to her,” Imbordino said in his opening statement. Officers searching for her the next morning came across a trail of blood running from the bike path, strewn with purple bits of Brosso’s cut clothes.

At the end of the path was Brosso’s body, only tennis shoes and socks on. She had been decapitated, her naked torso had suffered such a frenzied attack that she was nearly cut in half at the waist.

A stab wound to her left back, so powerful it severed her aorta and lung and fractured a rib, had been delivered before she died, Imbordino said.

A post-mortem examination could not determine when others were inflicted. There were just too many.

Judge Suzanne Cohen listens to opening statements in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix on Oct. 3, 2022, in the trial of accused murderer Bryan Patrick Miller, the so-called

Judge Suzanne Cohen listens to opening statements at Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix on Oct. 3, 2022, in the trial of accused murderer Bryan Patrick Miller, the so-called “Canal Killer.”

Her head was found in the canal 11 days later. It is likely, Imbordino said, that it flowed downstream by water, passing under I-17 before getting stuck in a grid at the Metrocenter mall.

It was unclear, he added, when her head was placed in the canal.

Ten months later, Melanie Bernas’ body was found floating in the same canal, near where Brosso’s head was found.

She had also been stabbed in the back, a deep wound that pierced her lung and aorta. But her other wounds were different: a cross and initials were carved into her chest.

Some clothing and part of her Walkman headphones were discovered under a bush. More clothes and the rest of the headphones were thrown away in a nearby garbage can. Her bra had fallen on the path and the Walkman was never found.

Her body was again dressed in a turquoise bodysuit, Imbordino said.

Sperm was discovered on vaginal swabs from both women, as well as on their clothing. The monster languished for years with no progress, but in 2015, Imbordino said it was linked to Miller.

The plan

In 1990, Imbordino said, when Miller was in his late teens, his mother found a document written by her son that disturbed her so much that she alerted the Phoenix Police Department.

Prosecutors call it The Plan, although Miller didn’t call it that. The Plan’s target was a girl about 17, Imbordino said.

The trial of the accused murderer Bryan Patrick Miller, the so-called "Canal Killer"  is underway at Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix on October 3, 2022.

The trial of accused murderer Bryan Patrick Miller, the so-called “Canal Killer”, is underway in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix on October 3, 2022.

It said what Miller would need: a carving knife, a garbage bag for disposing of body parts, a container for blood, gloves, and a black hood.

And, he said, it explained what Miller wanted to do: “Kidnapping a young woman, cutting off her clothes, committing multiple sexual acts, cutting her to scare her, murdering her by slitting her stomach, reserving the head for look into the future.”

Some call it a fantasy, Imbordino said, and maybe it was. In one go.

“Unfortunately,” Imbordino said, “that fantasy became a very harsh reality.”

The madness defense

Miller’s defense of insanity rests on two diagnoses.

At the time of the murders, Dees said, he was suffering from unspecified dissociative disorder and autism spectrum disorder.

As a child, Dees said, Miller lived in Hawaii, he and his mother on one island and his father, in the military, on another. When Miller was five, his father died in a motorcycle accident.

His mother, Dees said, hated Miller for getting in the way of her starting a new life with a new man. And that resentment was expressed through abuse.

“He was terrified of his mother,” she said.

Miller was literally treated like a dog, she said, forced to walk on all fours and eat from a bowl. There would be indications that he was beaten and often left home alone when his mother was working or going out at night.

“He turned in on himself and created his own little world,” Dees said. “There he could break free from the abuse, distance himself from the trauma.”

Then Miller began to distance herself, she said.

At age 10, Miller and his mother moved to Phoenix. In Arizona, Dees said, the abuse worsened and took on a sexual dimension. Miller’s mother exposed him to sexually violent films imprinted in his young mind.

She said Miller’s mother brazenly screened “mondo documentaries” in front of her son, films designed to shock and intimidate and violate social norms.

For Miller, Dees said, the movies were doubly difficult to understand because he has an autism spectrum disorder. They sparked disturbing fantasies, and when Miller’s mother threatened to cut his penis off, he believed she would.

In May 1989, Dees said, a 16-year-old Miller took the bus to Paradise Valley Mall instead of school.

He disembarked around 8:30 a.m. with a young woman he had never met or seen, she said, in a crowded public space.

He stabbed the young woman in the back before “shooting out” and running away, Dees said.

“It was almost like he wasn’t,” she said. “And you’ll hear him say it was like being on a computer with someone else controlling the mouse.”

Her opening statement relied heavily on the concept of two Millers: “normal state” Miller and “trauma state” Miller.

The man sitting in court would be described as a “caring father” and “friend of many,” she said, a quiet, shy and socially awkward man.

“Anyone who takes the stand will talk to you about the Bryan they know, not the Bryan who committed these terrible offenses.”

Disassociation is how he copes with his trauma, she said.

“When this happens, it’s not ‘normal Bryan,'” Dees said. “There is no regulation.”

Reach the reporter at lane.sainty@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter @lanesainty.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Lawyers outline arguments in the accused ‘canal killer’ trial

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