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Closing remarks presented in Donachy trial

October 18, 2011

Lawrence Earl Donachy

A 12-member jury did not reach a verdict on Tuesday following nearly 5.5 hours of deliberation in the homicide trial of Lawrence Earl Donachy, 36, of St. Marys. Deliberations will continue this morning beginning at 9 a.m., where the jury will decide the fate of Donachy, who is charged with one count each of criminal homicide, rape, burglary, aggravated assault, criminal attempt at arson and unlawful restraint in the April 5-6, 1999 rape and murder of Irene Challingsworth, a 57-year-old St. Marys beautician.
During the seventh day of the trial, the prosecution, led by Elk County District Attorney Bradley Kraus; and the defense, represented by attorneys George Daghir and Shawn McMahon, presented their closing arguments in the case. All evidence has been presented and all witnesses have testified.
Elk County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Richard Masson explained to the jurors, all of Butler County, that it was their duty to consider all the evidence presented throughout the course of the trial and apply the law to the facts of the case, and if they encounter a discrepancy of facts between the opposing counsels it is their (the jury's) recollection that is important.
Closing remarks provided the attorneys one final opportunity to directly address the jury. Unlike opening remarks, the defense was the first to present their arguments, followed by the prosecution. Masson said this order of placement is determined by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and is different in the eastern part of the state.
Defense gives closing arguments
Daghir began by stating the jury will likely have sympathy for the family due to the horrific nature of the crime; however, as the judge of facts they must remain neutral and unbiased without having sympathy or emotion play into their decision.
He emphasized that Donachy is presumed innocent unless found guilty and that jurors must find that the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt, meaning they do not hesitate in making a major decision.
Daghir posed a series of unanswered questions about the case to the jury, including why Challingsworth's body core temperature was never taken to aid in determining her approximate time of death; why police failed to fingerprint the stairway railing, bathroom facets, shower curtain and light switches; why the crime scene was closed but then the family was allowed in to clean her home and why police went to Challingsworth's boyfriend Tom Feldbauer's home to search his garbage after he cleaned her home; why no fingerprints were taken from the winning lottery ticket found at her residence; why former SMPD Officer John Lovett later returned to the scene to conduct a Luminol test; why her doors were open when she was fanatical about keeping her home locked; what her purse was doing submerged in the bathtub and how Donachy would know she had a winning lottery ticket; and why would Donachy walk to a pay phone at Uni-Mart where a marked police car was sitting in the parking lot if he had just allegedly murdered someone?
Daghir noted that Judy Wendel, who discovered Challingsworth's body the morning of April 6, 1999, testified the crime scene was "chaos" upon her calling in the crime.
Daghir then stated there was a lack of evidence and the facts have been twisted.
"I'm not going to solve this; neither is the Commonwealth," Daghir said.
He emphasized there was no burglary, no forced entry and that it was clear there was no tampering to the doors and locks, as Challingsworth's two shotguns, jewelry and winning lottery ticket were not taken.
According to Daghir, a common thread running through the case was that Lovett's pride and ego were "bruised" when he had to turn the case over to the Pennsylvania State Police, a case which the SMPD worked on from April 6, 1999 to July 19, 2002.
Daghir encouraged the jury to request any evidence they wished to review again in making their decision.
Daghir again emphasized what he said was the state's lack of evidence, which includes forensic pathologist Dr. Eric Vey, M.D., of the Erie County Coroner's Office, testifying that time of death was between 12-18 hours from the time the autopsy was performed, establishing a time of death around 11:30 p.m. on Monday, April 5.
"This homicide occurred sometime on the night of Monday, April 5 between 10:30 p.m. and midnight," Daghir said, going on to explain that the time frame indicated that Donachy could not be accurately placed at the crime scene when Challingsworth's murder was determined to take place.
He said a second piece of evidence regarding this consisted of former SMPD officer Bill Brem's observance of Donachy using the pay phone outside the S. Michael Street Uni-Mart on April 6, 1999. Daghir said Donachy was working the 3-11 p.m. shift at Advanced Heat Treating on Trout Run Road at that time. He said Brem testified he saw Donachy at the phone booth between 12:30-12:45 a.m., and Brem later testified he saw Donachy on April 5, 1999 between 11:20 p.m. to midnight. Daghir noted this would not have been enough time for Donachy to walk from the plant to his parents' home on Robin Road, where he was living in April 1999, and back into town, all while allegedly doing all the things done in Challingsworth's home.
"All the Commonwealth can prove is that Larry Donachy had sexual intercourse with Irene Challingsworth within 96 hours of her death," Daghir said.
He referenced the 96 hours from testimony obtained by sexual assault forensic examiner Alexandra Schneider, who was entered as an expert witness by the defense. Schneider testified semen can be recovered up to 96 hours after intercourse, and Daghir said the presence of semen in Challingsworth's body did not necessarily mean she had been raped.
Daghir said the prosecution needed someone to wrap up the case and called Denise Zuchowski, aka Denise Erickson, who he said changed her name after being released from federal prison. He emphasized Zuchowski never went to the police for seven years following the murder and that she testified as feeling "blindsided" during the March 25, 2008 interview in New Jersey she participated in with Lovett and Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Dave Ray. During this interview Zuchowski, testified that she thought she was in trouble with police and repeatedly stated she did not know what happened in reference to Challingsworth's murder, and knew nothing about a sexual assault or lottery ticket.
Daghir said this contradicts Zuchowski's July 2008 interview with SMPD Officer Todd Caltagarone in St. Marys, where she provided a written statement with her signature stating she knew Challingsworth was bound and gagged, her doors were not locked, but Donachy knew where the key was and that Donachy and Craig Evans strangled and raped Challingsworth. She added that items including cash, a lottery ticket and a couch pillow were taken from her home.
"You can't groom witnesses, what do you think they did with her?" Daghir asked "The problem was she fell apart. She was the clay they molded. They needed Denise."
In concluding his closing remarks, Daghir asked the jury if they would base any major decisions about their life on information provided to them by Zuchowski. He said the Commonwealth has not sustained the burden of proof and asked that the jury find Donachy not guilty.
Prosecution reasserts its case
Next Kraus addressed the jury, thanking them for their participation and attentiveness.
He said that Daghir referenced Zuchowski in closing and that the jury might think that she is on trial, but those remarks are a diversion to take the focus off Donachy, the real defendant.
Kraus asked the jury to consider what motive Zuchowski had to testify; to tell everyone in 1999 that she was in a relationship with her boyfriend Shawn Steffan and having sex with Donachy, the couple's roommate, behind his back? Kraus asked who would face that and what motive a person would have in making those revelations, and indicated perhaps it was because Zuchowski heard from Donachy that he was involved in the crime and that over the past eight or nine years, she had been holding that information and it was becoming harder for her to do so.
Kraus said Zuchowski was not there to get back at Donachy, as she testified that she had no animosity toward him.
"Perhaps the motive is truth," Kraus said.
He added that what Daghir did not tell the jury was that one month before Zuchowski's New Jersey interview, police were collecting Donachy's DNA and asked why the state would be obtaining Donachy's DNA in February 2008 if they were so reliant on Zuchowski's testimony.
Kraus emphasized that Zuchowski was not the only piece of evidence the prosecution had in the case, adding that Donachy could have known about Challingsworth's winning lottery ticket as she walked to the same Uni-Mart store on S. Michael Street just hours before Donachy was spotted using the store's pay phone outside. Kraus said that news about a winning lottery tickets travels fast in a small town like St. Marys. He said Challingsworth could have easily forgotten to lock her car and house doors as she scrambled inside to answer the Uni-Mart clerk's phone call regarding her lottery ticket, as she had just been returning from visiting her daughter Kelly Bauer at the time, something she told the clerk during their phone conversation.

Pick up a copy of the Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.

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