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Trial for 1981 Somerset murder set to move forward

Paul Peirce
| Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010

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.

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