Wednesday, March 24, 1999

Dead woman had used cocaine

Durkin's skull also fractured

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — Cheryl Durkin had cocaine in her body when she died, but it isn't known whether the drug contributed to her death, according to a toxicology report.

        The report, which was discussed Tuesday at a Butler County court hearing, also says she suffered four skull fractures.

        The attorney for James Lee Lawson, who is accused of killing Ms. Durkin, 34, and dismembering her body, asked Common Pleas Judge Patricia Oney to order an analysis to find out how much cocaine might have been in Ms. Durkin's body.

        “We don't know if it was a lethal dose,” defense attorney John Rion said.

        Ms. Durkin's cause of death is a key issue in the murder case against Mr. Lawson, 29, of Middletown.

        “The exact role of (cocaine) in this individual's demise is uncertain,” said the report, written by Dr. James Swine hart, a pathologist, at the direction of Butler County Coroner Dr. Richard Burkhardt.

        Mr. Lawson has pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, gross abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. His trial is scheduled to begin June 3.

        The torso of Ms. Durkin, who lived in Madison Township, was found in April in the Great Miami River in Hamilton.

        Mr. Lawson's mother, Ellen Peck, and another relative led authorities in September to locations where the rest of Ms. Durkin's body parts were bur ied. Ms. Peck is serving a four-year prison sentence for obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence.

        Mr. Lawson eluded authorities before being arrested Nov. 28 at his girlfriend's home in Carrollton, Ky.

        At Tuesday's hearing, Mr. Rion asked Judge Oney to have the trial moved outside Southwest Ohio because of the publicity the case has received. He also asked the judge to bar the prosecution from using certain evidence and statements by Mr. Lawson.

        Judge Oney said she will issue a written decision on those issues.

        Mr. Rion argued that an attorney was not present when Mr. Lawson made statements to police. He said that police may have intimidated him and that in one instance, they failed to tell him his family's attorney was just outside the interview room.

        But assistant county prosecutor Dan Eichel said Mr. Lawson never requested an attorney and made the statements voluntarily.

        In a June 5 statement, Mr. Lawson said blood on walls at his house was his and not Ms. Durkin's, testified Lt. Anthony Dwyer of the Butler County Sheriff's Department. Lt. Dwyer said Mr. Lawson told him he had scraped his knuckles while tearing up a basement carpet.

        Mr. Rion said evidence obtained from the homes of Mr. Lawson and Ms. Peck should be disallowed because warrants were obtained illegally.

        At the prosecution's request, Judge Oney ordered Mr. Lawson to submit blood and handwriting samples by April 6 or face contempt of court charges.

        Mr. Lawson has declined to give those samples.


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