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Accused man's daughter testifies in W.Va. slaying trial

April 07, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - Holding a small photograph of the woman her father is charged with killing, Tabitha Sanders on Wednesday recounted a conversation she had with her father the day after Jennifer Leigh Dodson's body was found in her Charles Town apartment with her throat slashed.

Sanders, 20, testified that she asked her father, Vernon H. Dunlap Sr., why he had killed his girlfriend.

"She said something that made him mad" was her father's answer, Sanders testified. "I asked him how he did it. He said the way he did my mom."

In 1994, Dunlap was charged with stabbing his wife several times and trying to slash her throat in the presence of their three children. He was convicted of malicious wounding and served two years in prison.


Sanders was one of 14 witnesses who testified Wednesday, the second day of Dunlap's murder trial in the Jefferson County Courthouse. A jury of eight men and four women is hearing the case.

Others who testified included a former Jefferson County police officer who saw Dunlap slumped over in his pickup truck about an hour before Dodson's body was found, co-workers of Dunlap and medical officials.

The trial is scheduled to resume today.

Sanders, who was on the stand for more than an hour, testified that she visited her father in his room at City Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., on the evening of Feb. 20, 2004.

Dunlap was taken there after overdosing on medicine, both sides of the case agree.

Despite her father's actions in 1994 against her mother, Sanders said she maintained a father-daughter relationship with Dunlap.

They went to concerts and swimming together, and she would sometimes pick him up from bars if he had too much to drink, she said.

Sanders said she visited him in the hospital because she wanted him to answer questions she had.

When she walked in, Dunlap asked her whether police officers were stationed outside of his room. She told him yes, Sanders testified.

Dunlap next asked his daughter whether she was "wearing a wire," to which she answered no. He then talked to her, she said.

After answering her questions "he asked me if I had a sharp object," Sanders testified. She said he did not explain why he wanted such an item.

Sanders was asked to recount what happened on March 24, 1994, on Rock Cliff Drive in Martinsburg.

Before she did, Jefferson County Circuit Judge Thomas W. Steptoe Jr. read aloud a caution to the jurors. He said that normally evidence of prior actions are not allowed in trials, but that the jury in Dunlap's trial can consider the testimony only with regard to Dunlap's modus operandi, or method of action. They cannot consider it for any other purpose, he said.

Sanders said that on that day in 1994, when she was 9, she was riding in a car with her brother, sister and her mother, along with a woman and her child with whom they had been staying.

Her father ran the car off the road, then broke the passenger side window and stabbed his wife, Betty Yates, several times with a paring knife, Sanders testified.

When asked how long the blade was, Sanders held her fingers about 3 to 4 inches apart.

Yates previously testified that she was stabbed five times in the neck, once in the arm and once in the chest. Dunlap tried to cut her throat but the back of the blade was inadvertently against her neck, she has said.

Yates did not testify Wednesday but is listed as a witness.

Crime scene photos

Also during the trial, two photographs of Dodson's body were shown to jurors, including a close-up shot of her upper body. A cut was visible on her neck, and her face and part of her blue T-shirt were bloody. The floor on which she was found and the lower portion of a pillow also were bloody.

Dunlap looked at the photographs without any noticeable reaction. Three of Dodson's family members left the courtroom a couple of minutes after the first photograph was projected onto a screen facing the jury box.

According to testimony, Dodson was found face-down on the floor of her living room, with her head on a pillow and a blanket pulled over her body.

Heeding instructions from a 911 dispatcher, Kenneth Robinson - who is engaged to marry Dodson's sister and was one of three people who discovered Dodson's body - said he turned Dodson over and tried to resuscitate her.

After handing one of the photographs of Dodson's body to Robinson, Assistant Prosecutor Larry Crofford asked whether the photograph accurately depicted what he saw.

"It's a scene that will be in my mind for the rest of my life," Robinson answered.

Prior testimony from Dodson's sister, Crystal Dodson, and her best friend, Jamie Sisk, indicated that Dunlap, 46, lavished Jennifer Dodson with cards and flowers.

Although Dunlap seemed to want a serious relationship, Dodson, 20, had wanted to end the relationship but did not want to hurt Dunlap's feelings, Dodson's friend and sister said.

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