Trial begins for W.Va. man charged in woman's slaying

April 06, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA.- A photograph of a smiling, attractive young woman projected onto a screen behind him, Jefferson County Assistant Prosecutor Larry Crofford on Tuesday said the woman, slain more than a year ago in Charles Town, was a single mother devoted to her 1-year-old daughter.

Crofford was describing Jennifer Leigh Dodson, 20, whose throat was cut either on the night of Feb. 18, 2004, or early on Feb. 19, 2004.

A man with whom Dodson had been having a sexual relationship, Vernon Henderson Dunlap Sr., 46, of Martinsburg, W.Va., is charged with her murder.


Dunlap's trial began Tuesday morning when a panel of prospective jurors was whittled to eight men and four women, plus two men serving as alternates.

Jury selection started a little after 9 a.m. and lasted until after noon. Following a lunch break, Crofford delivered his opening statement.

A stipulation also was read aloud in which both the state and Dunlap's attorney, Craig Manford, agreed that no forensic evidence - DNA or fingerprints - links anyone, including Dunlap, to the murder.

In his opening statement, Crofford said his job is to speak on Dodson's behalf.

"Her story is tragic and demands to be told," he said.

Although Dodson wanted a casual relationship, Dunlap frequently sent her flowers, showed up at her workplace and sometimes would arrive bearing breakfast, Crofford said. Witnesses testified that Dunlap called Dodson repeatedly, including nine times in one morning.

Jekyll and Hyde

"This was not a love story. This was a horror story," Crofford told the jury.

Comparing Dunlap to the main character in Robert Louis Stevenson's book, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," Crofford said that like Dr. Jekyll, Dunlap could be attentive and friendly. He cared for his ailing father and worked hard, Crofford said.

Like Mr. Hyde, however, Dunlap also could be violent and cruel, Crofford said.

He said Dunlap killed Dodson and then tried to kill himself.

An hour before Dodson's body was found, two construction workers found Dunlap slumped over the wheel of his pickup truck, which was parked in Shepherdstown, W.Va., at the Princess Street boat ramp.

Both sides agreed that Dunlap had tried to kill himself by overdosing on his father's pills.

Conjecture, speculation

In his opening statement, Manford pointed out that there is no physical evidence, such as a fiber or a footprint, linking Dunlap to the murder.

"You don't have any of that here. It's not even close," he said.

Conjecture and speculation are the cornerstones of the state's case, he said.

Also making a literary connection, Manford referenced the movie "The Shawshank Redemption," based on a novella by Stephen King.

In that movie, Manford said, an innocent man was imprisoned for murder.

In the Dunlap case, police seized Dunlap's clothes, but did not find a drop of blood. The state did not examine a handprint in Dodson's bloody carpet or shoeprints on her kitchen floor, he said.

During his opening statement and while questioning witnesses, Manford occasionally referred to Dunlap as "Vernon Dodson." Each lapse produced a grumbling from members of Dodson's family, who were seated in the courtroom's front rows.

Two of Dunlap's family members also were in attendance, sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom.

After both attorneys gave their opening statements, the first witness was called to testify.

Jamie Sisk, 28, was one of the people who found Dodson's body. Sisk testified that Dodson, whom she said was her best friend, often watched her 2-year-old son for her.

After working an overnight shift, Sisk stopped by Dodson's apartment at around 7:10 a.m. on Feb. 19, 2004, to pick up her son, Sisk said.

Dodson lived at 308 New Oak Tree Court in the Willow Spring Farm apartment complex off Prospect Avenue, just outside of Charles Town's city limits.

Sisk testified that she knocked on the door and called Dodson several times, but received no answer.

Sisk went to the home of Dodson's sister, Crystal Dodson, who had a key. When Sisk, Crystal Dodson and Crystal Dodson's boyfriend entered the apartment they found Jennifer Dodson at the top of her steps, Sisk said.

A blanket covered Dodson's body and her head was on pillows. She was face-down, Sisk said.

Sisk said she had dropped off her son at around 10:45 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2004. She testified that she saw Dunlap's truck parked outside but did not go into the apartment.

Although her friend seemed upset about something, Sisk did not ask her what was wrong. She testified that she had planned to ask her the next morning.

Dodson had planned to change her phone number because Dunlap called her every day, including nine times on the morning of Feb. 18, Sisk said.

Sisk said that Dodson wanted to end the relationship with Dunlap but did not want to hurt his feelings.

On cross-examination, Sisk testified that she hates Dunlap and wants him to go to prison because she believes he killed her best friend.

Sister testifies

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