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W.Va. beating death case moves forward to Circuit Court

May 04, 2004|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - An attorney argued Monday that the murder charge filed against his client should be dismissed because police admitted there was no physical evidence linking his client to the scene and because much of the state's case rests on several inconsistent statements.

Kevin Richard Cornell, 41, of Fairfax Street in Martinsburg, was in Berkeley County Magistrate Court for a preliminary hearing that lasted about 90 minutes.

He is one of three people facing murder charges in the beating death of 93-year-old Delbert Rodgers, who was found dead inside his Airport Road home on Jan. 5, 2003.

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Although Magistrate Kristy Greer found enough probable cause to forward the case to Circuit Court for possible grand jury indictment, she said she did so under the assumption that all the evidence was true and correct.

For 20 minutes, Greer listened to a taped statement given by one of the other men charged in the case, John Michael Dignazio, 30. Dignazio is imprisoned in Winchester, Va., on unrelated charges.

That statement, given to West Virginia State Police troopers on Jan. 13, 2004, was one of several Dignazio gave to police, according to testimony.

West Virginia State Police Trooper J.C. Weaver said Dignazio's statements are "a big part" of the case. Arrest warrants were issued for the three men on Jan. 15, 2004.

Answering questions from Eric Black, Cornell's attorney, Weaver said that Dignazio's statements differed over time. At one point Dignazio said he never went inside Rodgers' home, but then said he did and that Rodgers wielded a gun, he said. Dignazio did not mention a third man's alleged involvement until his fourth interview with police, Weaver said.

During the Jan. 13 taped interview that was played in court, Dignazio told police that he bound Rodgers with duct tape and pushed him, but that Cornell and Christopher Mark Grady, 38, beat and kicked Rodgers.

Two days before, Grady and Cornell had talked about tying up and robbing Rodgers, Dignazio said on the tape.

Dignazio said on the tape that Cornell previously had done some work for Rodgers and believed he had $5,000 to $6,000 in his home.

Dignazio told police he and the other two men were wearing gloves, according to the tape.

No fingerprints, usable footprints, blood evidence, hairs or fibers were found at the scene to link Cornell to Rodgers' home, Weaver said.

A still-unidentified confidential informant who spoke to police told investigators that Dignazio was involved, which prompted police to first speak with him, Weaver said. The informant did not mention anyone else as being involved, Weaver said.

Black asked Weaver whether it was possible just one person killed Rodgers. Weaver said he believed more than one person had to be present to hold Rodgers down.

Black quickly asked Weaver how old Rodgers was at the time.

The last person to testify during the hearing was Saul Williams, 23, who is being held in Eastern Regional Jail on an unrelated sexual assault charge.

Williams said that during a phone conversation shortly after Rodgers' death, Cornell admitted to tying up and beating Rodgers.

Black asked Williams whether he has discussed obtaining a plea bargain in return for his testimony. Williams said he has not.

During his closing argument, when Black asked that the charge be dismissed, he pointed out that no medical certificate had been entered into evidence showing Rodgers' death was a homicide. He also cited what he called inconsistencies in Dignazio's statements.

Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely said Rodgers was tied up and beaten, meaning his death could not have been accidental. She said she was not required to show any proof that the death was a homicide.

Police previously said that a medical examiner determined Rodgers died from blunt force trauma injuries to his head and chest.

Grady previously waived his right to a preliminary hearing, meaning his case automatically was forwarded to Circuit Court for possible indictment.

Dignazio has not been brought to West Virginia to be arraigned on the charge.

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