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Dunlap guilty in slaying

April 13, 2005|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - A few in the audience cried or silently pumped their fists Tuesday when it was announced that a jury had found Vernon Henderson Dunlap Sr. guilty of first-degree murder in the throat-slashing death of Jennifer Leigh Dodson.

Dunlap, 46, stood and faced the jurors as a court clerk read the verdict aloud. He closed his eyes moments later when Circuit Judge Thomas Steptoe pronounced him as formally convicted of the charge.

Jurors deliberated for a little more than three hours before reaching the verdict.

Today, jurors will begin hearing additional testimony from character witnesses and will deliberate again to decide whether to grant Dunlap mercy. If mercy is granted, Dunlap will be eligible for a parole hearing after serving 15 years of a life sentence.

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Jurors wanted to continue with that phase of the trial after the verdict was announced, but Steptoe sent them home. It was a few minutes before 5 p.m.

Testimony is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. on what will be the sixth day of the trial.

Dodson's mother, Rosemary Davner, said she was pleased with the verdict, but she added that a no-mercy recommendation would be even better.

"There's nothing to bring Jenny back to us, but at least we know he can't get out and hurt anyone else," Davner said.

Dodson, who leaves behind a 2-year-old daughter, was the youngest of Davner's three daughters.

"If someone was in a bad mood, she could always make them laugh," Davner said. "Anybody that knew Jenny, they all fell in love with her."

Dunlap's obsession


In her closing argument to the jury, Assistant Prosecutor Gina Groh continued to focus on Dunlap's obsession with Dodson, who was killed on either the night of Feb. 18, 2004, or early Feb. 19, 2004.

Prosecutors and police have said that Dunlap killed Dodson, 20, because she wanted to end their relationship.

Although the state had no forensic evidence linking Dunlap to the murder, prosecutors called 26 witnesses to the stand, including four of whom said Dunlap confessed to the killing. One was Dunlap's 20-year-old daughter, who said her father told her that he killed Dodson after she said something that made him mad.

A medical examiner testified that it could have taken 30 or more minutes for Dodson to die after her throat was cut.

"Vernon waited. He waited for her to die," Groh told the jury in her closing argument.

Undisputed testimony indicated that Dunlap was the last person, aside from two infants, seen with Dodson on the night of Feb. 18, 2004, after Dodson's sister and her sister's fianc visited.

When they left, Dunlap was still inside Dodson's Willow Spring Farm apartment outside of Charles Town. Her body was found the next morning - an hour after Dunlap tried to commit suicide, records show.

Dodson's sister and others might now wish they had done something differently that night, but it wouldn't matter, Groh told jurors.

"Nothing that anyone would have or could have done would have saved the life of Jennifer Dodson. Her fate was sealed the moment this defendant took an interest in her," she said.

No physical evidence


In his closing argument, Dunlap's attorney, Craig Manford, stressed that no physical evidence, including fingerprints or blood on Dunlap's clothing, was found.

"How did blood not get on the attacker? I think it's virtually impossible and yet we don't have that in this case," he told the jury.

Saying that Dunlap is a "blue-collar guy" and "not a rocket scientist," he said that if Dunlap had murdered Dodson, some sort of forensic evidence would have been found.

Manford also said that there was no sign of a struggle in the apartment, yet noted that Dodson was nearly 70 pounds heavier than Dunlap.

He argued that the state had not proven a charge of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, and encouraged the jurors to use their common sense.

"You can't judge this on emotion. Your duty is to judge this on the facts," he said.

The day began with Steptoe informing the attorneys that one of the jurors hearing the case, a woman, was involved in an accident over the weekend and had broken her arm. She was replaced with a male alternate, bringing the jury panel to nine men and three women.

Jurors' query


About 20 minutes before the verdict was reached, the jury sent Steptoe a note asking for the definitions of first- and second-degree murder, and premeditation.

Jurors were given the option of finding Dunlap guilty of second-degree murder, which is a killing done without deliberation or premeditation.

When the jurors rang a bell at around 4:40 p.m., signaling that they had reached a unanimous verdict, several of Dodson's friends and family members held hands or linked arms. Some started crying.

Seven uniformed police officers stationed themselves around the courtroom, while another two plainclothes officers continued to sit behind Dunlap, as they had throughout the trial.

Assistant Prosecutor Larry Crofford said he is always surprised when a jury reaches a verdict, since prosecutors have to try to make 12 different minds agree.

He acknowledged the case was based largely on circumstantial evidence, but said that Dunlap had the means, opportunity and motive to kill Dodson.

"We're pleased that at long last we can get some justice for Jennifer Dodson," he said.

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