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Dunlap case to go to jury Tuesday

April 09, 2005

By CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - One of the jurors hearing the murder case against Vernon H. Dunlap Sr. turned to a fellow juror and appeared to scowl when told Friday afternoon that the trial was going to be put on hold until next week.

After the last witness in the case stepped off the stand at 1:30 p.m., Circuit Judge Thomas Steptoe held a private conference with the attorneys in the case.

He then told jurors that because of an expected lengthy discussion involving legal matters, he wanted to adjourn for the weekend and reconvene Tuesday morning, rather than risk keeping the jury into the evening. On Tuesday, jurors will hear closing arguments and then begin deliberating.

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A jury of eight men and four women is hearing the case against Dunlap, 46, who is charged with slashing the throat of Jennifer Leigh Dodson, 20, more than a year ago. Police have alleged that Dunlap killed Dodson because she wanted to end their relationship.

At 9 a.m. on Feb. 19, 2004, family and friends found Dodson dead in her Willow Spring Farm apartment outside of Charles Town.

Friday morning - the fourth day of the trial - began with the defense calling its first witness. On Thursday, the state rested its case after calling 26 witnesses.

Dunlap, who did not testify, spoke in court only to answer questions from Steptoe. Outside of the jury's presence, he told the judge "yes sir" when asked whether he voluntarily had made the decision not to testify.

One of defense attorney Craig Manford's three witnesses was Cpl. Shawn Bonifant of the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, who previously had testified for the state.

Wearing latex gloves, Manford and Bonifant held up the shoes and clothes that Dunlap was wearing when he was found at 8 a.m. on Feb. 19, 2004, slumped over the wheel of his pickup truck in Shepherdstown, W.Va. He had tried to overdose on his father's medication, both sides of the case agree.

Bonifant testified that no blood or other DNA evidence was found on Dunlap's Levi's blue jeans, a black Eminem T-shirt or an insulated flannel shirt.

At issue was a pair of white Reebok sneakers.

As a rebuttal witness Dodson's sister, Crystal Dodson, was called to the stand by the state to testify about the shoes.

She said she is certain Dunlap was wearing different shoes when he visited Jennifer Dodson on the evening of Feb. 18, 2004 - the last time she was seen alive.

Crystal Dodson said that Dunlap was wearing a clean, newer pair of Reeboks that evening. The shoes entered into evidence appeared to be older and were dirty.

No blood was found on the shoes by employees of the West Virginia State Police Crime Laboratory and no forensic evidence of any kind links Dunlap - or anyone else - to the murder.

Manford also asked Bonifant to review several photographs taken inside Dodson's apartment after her body was found.

The photographs depicted small blood spots scattered around the apartment and bloody shoe prints on the kitchen's linoleum floor.

Bonifant agreed that the shoe tread on the floor did not appear to match the tread on Dunlap's sneakers, but he also said that several others were in the apartment before police arrived, including the three people who found Dodson's body and emergency medical personnel.

Kenneth Robinson was one of those who found Dodson's body. Robinson, who is engaged to marry Dodson's sister, testified earlier in the week that after finding Dodson's body, he went into the kitchen to use the phone to call 911.

After the jury was dismissed, Manford and Assistant Jefferson County Prosecutors Larry Crofford and Gina Groh discussed with the judge what instructions should be read to the jury on Tuesday.

During the discussion Steptoe indicated that he believed jurors should be allowed to consider a charge of second-degree murder, but not voluntary manslaughter.

Although the prosecutors disagreed with including the second-degree murder charge, Steptoe said excluding it could be noted by the West Virginia Supreme Court, should the case be appealed.

Second-degree murder is a killing that is done without deliberation or premeditation.

Jurors will be able to return one of three verdicts: Guilty of first-degree murder, guilty of second-degree murder or innocent.

If they find Dunlap guilty of first-degree murder, additional character witnesses will be called to testify. Jurors then will deliberate again to decide whether to add mercy to their verdict, meaning Dunlap would be eligible for a parole hearing after serving 15 years of his life sentence.

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