Wednesday, October 23, 2013
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.
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.