Trial for 1981 Somerset murder set to move forward
A Somerset County judge has ruled prior testimony from a recently dead witness against a Florida man charged with murdering his wife 29 years ago can be read into evidence at trial.
In a 17-page ruling Friday, President Judge John M. Cascio dismissed a motion filed by John D. Dawson, 61, of Jacksonville seeking to have a murder charge against him dismissed because of the August death of a key prosecution witness.
Dawson is accused in the Nov. 9, 1981, slaying of his wife, Kathleen Dawson, 30.
Dawson is charged with killing his wife, a nurse, during her drive home from work to their Jennerstown residence. Her body was discovered in her burning car in Conemaugh Township.
Last fall, defense attorney Joseph B. Policicchio argued before Cascio that the testimony of Dawson's nephew, Duane Schmidt, which was given at a June 4, 2009, preliminary hearing, should be ruled inadmissible and the murder charge dismissed.
Schmidt, 56, died of natural causes in August. He came forward in March 2009 with evidence against his uncle, who was long considered a suspect in the case, according to police.
Schmidt testified that Dawson had burn marks on his face and smelled of smoke shortly after Kathleen Dawson's body was found.
Schmidt said he overhead a conversation between Dawson and another man regarding a blackjack and gasoline cap found near the car. Police believe the blackjack, a small, clublike weapon, was used to kill the victim before her car was set on fire.
In his ruling, Cascio said Pennsylvania law permits the admission of such testimony if the defendant "had an adequate opportunity to cross-examine the witness."
Cascio sided with District Attorney Jerry Spangler's argument that Schmidt's preliminary hearing testimony should be read to jurors because it was given under oath and was subject to cross-examination.
"Here, (Dawson) had the ability to impeach and question Mr. Schmidt, even if his counsel chose not to actually pursue more extensive questioning at that time. More specifically, the record lacks any indication that the Commonwealth withheld impeachment evidence or any other piece of evidence that would have aided the defendant's counsel in his ability to conduct an adequate cross-examination," Cascio wrote.
Cascio dismissed Policicchio's argument that the passage of time has produced a prejudice against his client that would prevent a fair trial.
Dawson's sister, Joyce Blough, who testified she noticed the burn marks and smoky smell on her brother in 1981, admitted at the 2009 preliminary hearing that she had trouble remembering certain details, Policicchio said.
"The evidence presented at the pretrial hearing is not sufficient to sustain a determination that actual prejudice has been suffered by (Dawson)," Cascio wrote.
Cascio did rule against Spangler's request to introduce transcripts from a 1982 coroner's inquest at trial. Those transcripts include testimony of three witnesses who have since died, including Dawson's alleged mistress.
Cascio noted that, unlike testimony at the preliminary hearing, testimony at the inquest was not subject to extensive cross-examination. The judge noted that inquest testimony was taken to determine a cause of death "... not to determine the viability of charges against Dawson, because there were none at the time."
Authorities say Dawson had financial and romantic motives to kill his spouse of nine years before he moved to Florida to live with the mistress three months later. He changed his insurance policy on the day of the slaying and received $25,968 as a result of his wife's death, according to court records.
Dawson, who operated a bar in Jacksonville, is expected to appear before Cascio today with his attorney. Attorneys are expected to review the status of the case.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Liriano, Pirates beat Giants, inch closer to lead in NL Central
- Steelers offensive linemen looking to build on strong 2013 finish
- Starkey: Would one big move kill Pirates’ future?
- Pirates inquire about Red Sox LHP Lester
- Pleasant Hills Night Out attracts large crowd
- McKeesport councilman fined, given probation in gambling ring
- Strike remains possible for East Allegheny teachers
- Whitaker man to serve 2 life sentences for West Mifflin murders
- Father, son killed in East Huntingdon crash
- Pirates think Mercer’s defense deserves more credit
- Former walk-ons may lose scholarships under Penn State’s Franklin