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Man guilty in wife's slaying

Paul Peirce
| Saturday, April 9, 2011

Eighty five-year-old Roy D. Smith pumped his fist in the air and shook his head in disbelief Friday night when a Somerset County jury convicted his former son-in-law of murdering Smith's daughter almost three decades ago.

John David Dawson, 61, of Jacksonville will spend the rest of his life in prison for his first-degree murder conviction reached by a jury of seven women and five men who deliberated for six hours.

"I'm so happy, I can't believe it. I always said I hoped it would happen before I die -- and it did," Smith said.

Smith said the verdict -- coming 29 years and five months after the death of Kathleen Dawson -- should be a lesson to the families of other murder victims.

"Don't give up. It takes perseverance. I knew he did it all the time," he said.

State police and prosecutors alleged that Dawson ambushed his wife of nine years, beat her with a blackjack, stuffed her body back in her car and set it on fire along a rural road in Conemaugh Township on Nov. 10, 1981.

District Attorney Jerry Spangler credited "the common sense of jurors in determining Dawson's guilt after a 10-day trial."

"John David Dawson's world was collapsing when he chose to murder his wife in 1981 along a winding rural road," Spangler said in his closing statement to jurors yesterday.

Dawson was living a double life, Spangler said.

"To his church friends, John Dawson was a loving husband. To his millwright friends, he was carousing in bars and hanging out with his mistress," Spangler said. "This was a crime of hatred."

In 2009, Dawson was arrested in the slaying of his wife at a bar he was operating in Jacksonville.

At the time of the killing, Dawson was a furloughed Bethlehem Steel worker with money troubles. Spangler said the only person who benefited from the death of 30-year-old Kathleen Dawson was her husband, who collected $25,968 in life insurance and moved to Florida with his mistress three months after his wife's death.

"Does this sound like a grieving husband?" Spangler asked the jury.

Defense attorney Joseph Policicchio painted a different picture of Dawson for the jurors and asked them to return a verdict of not guilty.

"The entire case against Mr. Dawson is pure speculation. There's no blood, no fingerprints even linking Mr. Dawson to the crime scene," Policicchio said in his closing.

He said an acquittal was warranted because authorities were unable to prove even that a crime had been committed.

Policicchio blamed shoddy police work at the outset by Conemaugh police, who failed to make an arrest in almost three decades.

"It was almost like the Keystone Cops. This is enough to give you reasonable doubt, " he said.

Policicchio said that if police were concerned about burns on John Dawson's face after the murder, "why didn't they get a search warrant to take photos of the burn marks that we could show here and search his house for the burned clothes?"

Policicchio pointed out that President Judge John Cascio dismissed related arson and criminal conspiracy charges that had been filed against Dawson in connection with the murder.

"The commonwealth is asking you to speculate," he told the jury. "The commonwealth hasn't even proved that the fire was intentionally set here."

Cascio scheduled formal sentencing for June 21. A first-degree murder conviction carries an automatic life sentence in Pennsylvania.

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