Judge denies Fayette County couple's request for trial in death of infant daughter

| Thursday, July 10, 2014, 11:18 p.m.

A Fayette County couple who claimed their attorneys gave them bad advice when they pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in their daughter's death have been denied a trial.

Robert D. Dodson, 59, and Tammy J. Bohon, 38, are serving 4 12 to nine years in prison for the Jan. 6, 2011, death of their 15-month-old, Madison Violet Dodson, a child with special needs who received nourishment through a feeding tube.

The girl died in her Point Marion home of malnutrition and dehydration because of neglect, according to an autopsy report that listed pneumonia as a “significant contributing factor.”

Madison had multiple health problems and required a feeding tube, according to testimony during a preliminary hearing in November 2011. The feeding tube was not connected for most of the day leading up to her death, and she was vomiting and had diarrhea, according to court records.

Bohon told police that she planned to take her daughter to the emergency room but instead went to Masontown to smoke crack with a friend and fell asleep. Dodson told police that he rigged a replacement feeding tube with tape and went to sleep.

The pair avoided going to trial for homicide by entering guilty pleas to involuntary manslaughter. After they were sentenced, each obtained a new attorney, Vincent Tiberi and Kimberly Kovach of Uniontown.

The attorneys filed petitions under the Post Conviction Relief Act seeking trials or sentencing hearings, claiming their clients received inadequate representation when they entered guilty pleas.

In opinions and orders handed down on Thursday, Judge Steve Leskinen denied requests for trials.

Citing testimony during a Jan. 29 hearing on the petitions, Leskinen said he “cannot find” that the attorneys at the time of the pleas, Dianne Zerega and Jack Connor of Uniontown, provided “inadequate representation.”

Connor testified he was not prepared for trial when prosecutors offered the deal. Had Dodson opted to go to trial in lieu of taking the plea offer, he testified, he would have asked for a continuance so he could prepare.

Zerega testified she was prepared for trial, having represented Bohon before in the woman's dealings with Fayette County Children and Youth Services. Zerega had not planned to call any CYS officials as witnesses because the attorney believed their testimony would have harmed her client, Leskinen noted.

The judge said Zerega found her “initial argument” for Bohon's innocence “was refuted when the medical examiner confirmed that the child died of double pneumonia, not starvation.”

Zerega testified during the hearing that the double pneumonia “had been going on for some time.”

Zerega testified she felt it would not have been beneficial for Bohon to testify at a trial because she had medical training, Leskinen noted.

“I felt that if the jury heard that this child (had) prior medical conditions, was that sick, and the mother left the child alone with her older children, (and the fact that she had prior medical training) would turn around to bite her, not help her,” Zerega testified in January.

Leskinen noted that the plea bargains netted the couple far less than the 20 to 40 years in prison they potentially faced if they went to trial and were convicted of third-degree homicide.

“Even though that plea bargain was above the sentencing guidelines for involuntary manslaughter, it was far below a sentence that could have been imposed for a third-degree murder conviction,” Leskinen wrote.

Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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