Zanesville jury rejects death penalty and recommends LWOP in gruesome slaying

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Good morning:

A jury rejected the death penalty and recommended life without parole for LaFonse Dixon, one of three defendants charged with the gruesome murder of 29-year-old Celeste Fronsman. She was found alongside a highway in Muskingum County, Ohio by a passing motorist. She had been beaten, burned and had a strap around her neck. She died two days later in a hospital.

Dixon’s two female codefendants, Katrina Culberson and Monica Washington, pled guilty and agreed to testify against him to avoid the death penalty. Defense counsel argued that the two women committed the murder and Dixon was innocent.

Hannah Sparling of the Zanesville Times covered Katrina Culberson’s testimony at the trial.

In the days leading up to the murder, Culberson said she and Dixon were angry at Fronsman for a couple of reasons. One, Fronsman owed her some money, Culberson said. Two, there had been a drug raid a couple of weeks before at one of Dixon’s drug houses, and they thought it was Fronsman who told police, Culberson said.

“Celeste was telling on a couple people. She was scared,” she said, adding that she and Dixon “kind of both talked about killing her and bringing her down to Zanesville.”

Fronsman laid low for a while, but eventually, Culberson and Washington tracked her down. They chased her to a Walmart parking lot, then Culberson sweet-talked Fronsman, she said, telling her it would be OK and she wasn’t going to hurt her.

She convinced her to get in the car with them, then they went to pick up Dixon.

Up until that point, there really wasn’t a plan, Culberson said, but when Dixon got into the vehicle, the two shared a look, Culberson said.

“We kind of looked at each other like, ‘It’s on. It’s about to happen,’” she said.

Then, Culberson started driving, and Dixon started punching Fronsman in the face, she said.

“She kind of screamed the first punch, but after that she didn’t really do anything,” she said.

They drove around Canton for 15 or 20 minutes before Culberson merged onto Interstate 77 south, she said. Throughout, Dixon and Washington were beating Fronsman, Culberson said. They used a belt and tape to bind her hands, then Dixon stuffed napkins in Fronsman’s mouth and Washington tied a shirt around her face, Culberson said.

At one point, Culberson climbed into the backseat and hit Fronsman several times with the handle of a screwdriver, she said. Then, she pushed her feet into Fronsman’s neck, and blood started gushing out her eye.

At another point, Dixon got a strap out of the back of the vehicle and wrapped it around Fronsman’s neck, strangling her, Culberson said.

Fronsman was slapping the seat and trying to get away, but “really, she couldn’t do much. Her face was turning blue,” Culberson said.

Once they reached the Tri-Valley recreation area, Dixon and Washington carried Fronsman to a patch of tall grass and laid her down, Culberson said. Then, Culberson got a gas tank out of the car and poured gasoline on Fronsman’s body. Dixon gave her a lighter, she said, and she lit the flame.

The three of them cleaned up what they could, then they drove away, Culberson said, leaving Fronsman behind.

The defense called two witnesses, an EMT who attended to Fronsman during the ride to the hospital and a DNA expert.

The EMT testified that Fronsman only mentioned Culberson.

The DNA expert disagreed with the prosecution expert who had testified that Dixon’s DNA profile matched a DNA profile that was obtained from masking tape used to bind the victim. She said the sample obtained from the masking tape was a mixed sample with multiple contributors and Dixon could not be excluded as a source of the mixed sample.

The defendant did not testify.

I suspect that, although the jury convicted Dixon of the murder, it was unable to agree on the death penalty due to lingering doubt. A lingering doubt is not a reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, it is a sufficient doubt to cause many jurors in death penalty cases to reject the death penalty in favor of a life without parole sentence.

As many death penalty lawyers have long suspected, including myself, most jurors require certainty to sentence a defendant to death. I think the LWOP verdict in Dixon’s case is another example of that principle.

The result in this case may be shocking to some, but it is consistent with the national trend in loss of support for the death penalty.

13 Responses to Zanesville jury rejects death penalty and recommends LWOP in gruesome slaying

  1. Mary Davis says:

    should not get less.

  2. Mary Davis says:

    I’m with you Kllypyn. Dixon should be grateful that he got lwop. He should spend the rest of his entire life behind bars. He has his lifetime to think about the life he so brutally took. IMO the co-defendants would not get any less, deal or no deal.

  3. kllypyn says:

    As long as they never walk the streets again i’m happy.

  4. acemayo says:
    CA Deputies Shoot, Kill 13-Year-Old Carrying Fake ‘Assault Weapon’
    UPDATE: Santa Rosa’s The Press Democrat is reporting that the name of the boy whom deputies shot was Andy Lopez. Speaking to reporters in Spanish, Lopez’s father said he told his son to “behave [himself]” the last time he saw him alive, which was on the morning of the 22nd. CBS News reports that this is the third time in less than 24 hours that a Bay Area law enforcement agent has shot a suspect.

  5. The post conviction exoneration of wrongfully convicted innocent people sentenced to death has dampened enthusiasm for the death penalty and caused many jurors to insist on certainty before sentencing a defendant to death.

    Many jurors also find it difficult to sentence a defendant to death when codefendants avoided the death penalty by snitching on the defendant who went to trial. This is especially true where a snitching codefendant played a major role in the murder, as happened in this case.

    Another consideration in this case may be that the victim was not an innocent person who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Defense counsel have to be extremely careful about making a victim-bashing argument in any homicide case, unless they are in Seminole County, Florida and other awful places like it.

    I suspect all three of these factors may have contributed to the verdict.

    Finally, looks to me like defense counsel deserve some credit for saving their client’s life, given the gruesome and horrific circumstances of the victim’s agonizing death.

  6. ed nelson says:

    Taking issue with the first paragraph, not antagonistly of course, but in a quandry, Fred, has anyone ever floated the idea, publicly, to have a kind of two option penalty for capital crimes such as, “Life with out Parole, and/or Death. Where the Condemned would be able to Opt out at any stage from the Incarceration and be allowed to go out and do everybody a great big favor! Or at least there would be an end in site, and nobody has yet defied that ultimate end, why ad suffering, to all, and if there is any way to benefit from life in eternal lock up, then ok, just a possible thought. Thanks.

    • Hi Ed,

      I know that idea has been discussed by many death penalty lawyers because I have participated in many of those discussions with my colleagues. I support the idea, but I don’t believe there is much public support for it because it basically endorses suicide as a way of avoiding a punishment and makes the state an aider and abettor to that suicide.

      It also gives the convicted murderer the power to choose his sentence, so to speak, and that conflicts with the desire for vengeance and harsh punishment.

      Most prosecutors, families and friends of the victims, and strong supporters of the death penalty would vigorously oppose the idea.

      Another consideration is that a wrongfully convicted innocent person sentenced to death might choose suicide foreclosing the possibility of a post conviction exoneration. A possible solution to that problem would be to prohibit an assisted suicide until some period after all appeals and efforts to obtain post conviction relief have been exhausted.

    • ed nelson says:

      Well maybe the Troglidites might too adjust to not having the satisfying pound of flesh festering away there in torment, like if I would have to spell out the one part that makes practical sense, to quote my self: “Condemned would be able to Opt out at any stage from the Incarceration and be allowed to go out and do everybody a great big favor!

      • ed nelson says:

        aborted the above: meant to say it would save money, and remove the deseased asshole from the biosphere, and save money, and space, the world has plenty of souls who need some…. “Lebensraum” No?

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