Wednesday, December 08, 1999

Lawyer: Drug may have killed

New theory emerges in murder trial

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — James Lee Lawson's attorney admitted in court Tuesday that Cheryl Ann Durkin died as a result of a struggle with Mr. Lawson. But John Rion said cocaine may have played a crucial role in her death, and that Mr. Lawson did not intentionally kill her.

        He said he may ask the jury to consider convicting Mr. Lawson of a less serious charge.

        “Let's not jump to a conclusion of what she died of,” Mr. Rion told the jury in his opening statement.

        Mr. Lawson, 30, of Middletown, is being tried for murder in Butler County Common Pleas Court. He is accused of killing Ms. Durkin, 33, of Madison Township, in his house on Feb. 24, 1998.

        He has admitted that he cut off the head, arms and legs of Ms. Durkin's body and coaxed his relatives to get rid of them.

        He pleaded no contest last month to charges of gross abuse of a corpse and ob structing justice. Judge Patricia Oney found him guilty of those charges.

        The prosecution contends that Ms. Durkin's death was caused by four blows to her head with a blunt object.

        “He killed her purposely by bludgeoning her at least four times,” assistant county prosecutor Dan Eichel said in his opening statement. “Cheryl Durkin met a violent, bloody death in his house.”

        Medical examiners found cocaine, amphetamines and alcohol in Ms. Durkin's body, but they said they could not determine whether it contributed to her death.

        Mr. Rion said Ms. Durkin's and Mr. Lawson's blood were found in his bedroom, indicating that there had been a struggle between the two.

        Citing a previous criminal case, he said it's plausible that the combination of cocaine and a high level of adrenaline brought on by the struggle caused Ms. Durkin's death.

        Mr. Rion also told the jury that some of the fractures in Ms. Durkin's skull may have been caused by the police official who admitted in a previous court hearing that he accidentally struck Ms. Durkin's skull with a shovel while digging it up.

        Mr. Eichel said Mr. Lawson's enormous efforts to conceal the crime and avoid prosecution are the “acts of a man with a guilty conscience.”

        Besides dismembering Ms. Durkin's body and enlisting his mother, Ellen Kay Peck, and his sister, Melissa Lawson, to hide them, Mr. Lawson tried to wipe all traces of Ms. Durkin's blood from his house, Mr. Eichel said.

        He tried to throw out the bloody basement carpet and repainted the basement walls.

        On April 13, 1998, Ms. Durkin's torso was found floating in the Great Miami River.

        Police found the other body parts buried in Preble County and in Indiana.

        After being questioned by police, Mr. Lawson fled in May 1998, and assumed false identities.

        In a letter he sent his parents from Los Angeles, he said, “You can't never tell anybody anything. It will cost me the electric chair.”

        He was arrested in November 1998, in Carrollton, Ky.


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