Nine years later, convicted killer seeks reconsideration of case in Raleigh County

A convicted killer made what could be his final plea for freedom in Raleigh County on Tuesday.
A convicted killer made what could be his final plea for freedom in Raleigh County on Tuesday.(wvva)
Published: Nov. 15, 2022 at 1:53 PM EST
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BECKLEY, W.Va. (WVVA) - A convicted killer made what could be his final plea for freedom in Raleigh County on Tuesday.

A Habeas hearing was held for Donald Dunn, the man convicted of murder without mercy for the 2013 killing of his stepfather, Mark McDermott, and the attempted murder of his mother, Joanna McDermott.

His conviction was upheld on an appeal by the W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals in 2016. Barring the discovery of any new evidence, the Habeas petition could be Dunn’s last chance to contest the case in court.

At the time of his trial in 2014, then-Prosecuting Attorney Kristen Keller told the jury Dunn had lied to his parents about attending Marshall University. On his expected graduation day in May of 2013, instead of telling his parents, Keller said he plotted a fake murder-suicide. But after shooting his step-father, Mark McDermott, Keller said he attempted to also shoot his mother, Joanna McDermott -- only the gun misfired. After his mother was able to call police, Keller said Dunn confessed to the murder on a tape recorder in the back of a police car.

It was that recorded confession that came up in Dunn’s Habeas hearing more than nine years later on Tuesday. Dunn’s attorney, Omar Barghouthi, called into question a decision by Dunn’s trial attorney, David White, not to seek a bifurcated trial and admit to the crime at the outset. Barghouthi used White’s law license being annulled in 2018, to bolster an ineffectiveness of counsel claim.

“There is a reasonable probability, that but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, that the proceedings would have been different. I believe he would have had a better chance at mercy if they were bifurcated.”

Barghouthi said the lawyer should have sought a bifurcated trial -- meaning the jury makes a decision regarding guilt and mercy separately. While that would have allowed Dunn’s defense team to make an argument for mitigating factors at sentencing, such as the defendant’s use of synthetic Marijuana at the time, prosecutors argued the strategy could have proven successful.

“It would be perfectly reasonable to not seek bifurcation to get a lesser or included offense than if it were bifurcated,” argued Prosecutor Dominick Cangemi.

Later in the hearing, Dunn took the stand in an effort to bolster his ineffectiveness of counsel claim, claiming he had difficulty getting in touch with his attorney ahead of the trial -- resulting in him communicating with his mother over the recorded jail line that was used in court.

While Habeas petitions are rarely granted, Judge Andrew Dimlich said he would render a decision after further review.