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Man sentenced to life plus 30 years in murder

April 22, 2005|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - Throughout the trials of two men convicted of killing her first-born child, Vanessa Dennis sat silently and listened stoically as lawyers and witnesses rehashed the details of her 19-year-old son's March 2004 shooting death.

But on Thursday, the Waynesboro, Pa., woman finally stood up to the man who was convicted of firing the fatal bullet at her son.

She forgave him.

Tyshawn Jones, 23, who was convicted by a Washington County Circuit jury in January of first-degree felony murder and second-degree depraved heart murder among a series of counts in connection with Jonathan M. Dennis' death, was sentenced on Thursday by Circuit Judge John H. McDowell to serve life plus 30 years in state prison.

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Jonathan Dennis was killed in the early hours of March 14, 2004, in a Washington Gardens Apartments courtyard following the armed robbery of his then 13-year-old cousin, Andrew Snyder, of $8 and a pack of cigarettes. Minutes after the robbery, Dennis, accompanied by friends and family who were partying with him at an apartment in the northeast Hagerstown complex, went outside the apartment to check for the robbers, records state. They exchanged some words with the robbers, were confronted by a hail of gunfire and a single .22-caliber bullet pierced Dennis' chest, according to records. The bullet was linked to a gun later recovered from Jones, who told police he fired that gun into the air the morning of Dennis' death, records state.

Azaniah Blankumsee, 26, aka Azzy, originally was believed by police to be the gunman until autopsy results revealed a different story.

Records show that police found .380-caliber shell casings at the crime scene that were consistent with a gun Dennis' friends and family said they saw Blankumsee handling at the party. Blankumsee was convicted in December during a separate trial of felony murder in connection with Dennis' death. He was sentenced to life in prison in February.

Vanessa Dennis didn't speak at the sentencing for Blankumsee, but did briefly testify during each of their trials for the purposes of identifying her son. On Thursday, Dennis, in a raspy voice that was at times choked with emotion, told McDowell that she holds no grudges.

"When I die, I'm going to heaven. God holds no grudges, so I've forgiven him," she said in a thoughtful tone. "They're all young. They still have a chance to get their hearts right. I know in my heart, none of them meant to do what they did ...

"As a parent, I know that they have a heart. I wish I had the courage to stand up and tell Azzy that I've forgiven him," she said. "My other kids, they're mad. But when they grow up, they'll forgive them, too."

Jones stared ahead, away from Dennis, as she spoke. He occasionally rolled his head slowly toward her.

Later in the hearing, Jones thanked Dennis for her forgiveness.

"I'd like to say I'm so sorry for what happened to all ya'll," he said, looking at Dennis, Gena Snyder (the victim's aunt) and Andrew Snyder. He said he realizes his apology would not bring back Jonathan Dennis.

Cindy Rowe, a mitigation specialist from Philadelphia, Pa., testified Thursday for the defense that Jones holes up his emotions. His life was spent in and out of foster homes, the homes of various relatives and juvenile facilities, she said. One of the few men Jones looked to as a father figure, she testified, died of a heroin overdose.

On cross-examination, Washington County Deputy State's Attorney Joseph Michael asked Rowe if Jones had an employment history or whether there was evidence he supported himself through crime. She said she found no record of employment.

Michael asked Rowe if her investigation into Jones revealed "anything positive for the future." She replied, "No."

Jones' attorney, Michael Wilson, had argued first Thursday for a new trial, saying that the jury that convicted Jones was not initially polled on its decision. McDowell, who had recalled the jury in February to poll them on the unanimity of its verdict, denied Wilson's motion.

Before he sentenced Jones, McDowell said Vanessa Dennis was courageous for expressing her forgiveness.

"To forgive, to express hope that Mr. Jones might turn his life around ... very rarely do I see this," he said.

However tragic Jones' upbringing was, McDowell said, "The tragedy I'm dealing with today is the death of a young man ... who was very innocent."

"Shooting into a crowd of children - that fortunately only cost him one life instead of five, six or seven - has brought him to this stage," he said.

Vanessa Dennis said after the hearing that she was satisfied with the sentences handed to Jones and Blankumsee. She said that now that both have been sentenced, she thinks she will find some closure.

Vanessa Dennis said she realized she needed to forgive the two men during Jones' trial.

"I knew that was the only way I could go on," she said.

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