Tuesday, March 06, 2001

Victim's family opposes new trial

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        MIDDLETOWN — Cheryl Ann Durkin was slain and dismembered — and her family doesn't think her killer deserves a new trial.

        A dozen of Ms. Durkin's relatives listened Monday in the 12th District Court of Appeals as lawyers argued for and against a new trial for James Lee Lawson.

        Housed in the Ross Correctional Institution in Chillicothe, 93 miles away, the 31-year-old Middletown man is serving 20 years to life for murder, gross abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence.

        “If it keeps going to court, we'll keep coming,” Ms. Durkin's sister, Karla Edwards of Madison Township, said after the half-hour court session Monday. “I'll keep fighting the rest of my life to keep him in prison — that's where he belongs until the day he dies.”

Body found in pieces
               Ms. Durkin, 34, disappeared in February 1998; her torso was found in the Great Miami River two months later, and her other body parts were recovered by the end of 1998. Mr. Lawson was arrested in Kentucky in November 1998; a jury convicted him in December 1999.

        Fred Miller, a Hamilton lawyer handling Mr. Lawson's appeal, gave eight reasons he thinks his client's conviction should be overturned; Dan Eichel, Butler County assistant prosecutor, maintains none of the reasons is valid.

        Both attorneys asked the appellate judges — Stephen W. Powell, William W. Young and Anthony Valen — to consider cases in support of their contentions. The panel generally renders decisions within one to four months of hearing oral arguments, Mr. Eichel said.

        Among Mr. Miller's arguments: The trial court erred by allowing certain evidence, including “gruesome and shocking photographs” of Ms. Durkin's remains. Mr. Miller said his client had pleaded guilty to the tampering and corpse abuse charges prior to trial, so evidence related to those charges was irrelevant to the murder charge and served only to prejudice and inflame jurors.

        Mr. Eichel countered that Mr. Lawson's attempts to cover up the crime, suppress adverse evidence, flee and conceal his identity are all considered “incriminating circumstances” that a jury may properly consider when deliberating.

Family aided Lawson
               In a case that gained national attention, Mr. Lawson became a federal fugitive after enlisting his mother and sister to bury Ms. Durkin's body parts.

        His mother, Ellen Kay Peck, 49, is midway through a four-year prison sentence for obstruction of justice and tampering with evidence.

        His sister, Melissa Botts, pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and is serving five years' probation.


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