The ropes and handcuffs that former Saddleback College assistant dean Donald E. Dawson took with him to his former wife's El Toro home on the morning she was killed became defense weapons Monday in an attempt to save him from a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Prosecutors contend that Dawson, now 47, was lying in wait in an upstairs bedroom for his ex-wife, Dona Dawson, and caught her off guard with gunfire from the stairway just after she entered the house. If the jury finds Dawson was lying in wait, it will mean an automatic sentence of life without parole.
But Dawson's attorney, Ronald G. Brower, waved the rope strands and handcuffs in front of an Orange County Superior Court jury during closing arguments Monday and asked: "Is this what you take with you when you're going to ambush somebody?"
Killed on Sidewalk
"Use your common sense. There's enough rope here to tie up an army. Why would you need these? If this were truly an ambush, Dona Dawson would have never made it out of the house alive."
Mrs. Dawson, 46, who was head of Saddleback College's nursing department, was killed on a sidewalk two doors from her home about 9:30 a.m. Sept. 15, 1984.
According to eyewitness testimony and other prosecution evidence, Dawson fired six shots at her from the stairway area with a .38-caliber pistol but missed her. He then switched to a .45-caliber pistol, felled her with one shot and then fired four more times while standing directly above her as she lay wounded.
The Dawsons were divorced in 1982 after a stormy, eight-year marriage. Dawson was trying to persuade her to take him back and was angry with her for seeing another man, according to testimony from Dawson's doctors and friends of his ex-wife. He had seen Mrs. Dawson and an escort at a restaurant just a few hours before he broke into her home on the morning of her death.
Dawson has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. But the sanity issue will not come up until the next phase of the trial. On Monday, defense attorney Brower tried to convince jurors that they should not convict Dawson, who is charged with first-degree murder, of anything more serious than manslaughter.
Dawson has not testified, but a series of psychiatrists and psychologists who interviewed him related his story to the jurors. Dawson, they said, went to his ex-wife's house only to try to talk to her and took the ropes and handcuffs in case he needed to tie her and possibly her boyfriend so he could get her to listen to him. The guns were taken along, the doctors said, only to impress her.
But Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James G. Enright argued to the jury that Dawson took the guns to kill her because he realized that she wasn't going to take him back.
"He had always been able to pull her chain," Enright said. "But he couldn't do it anymore. So he decided to do something about it."
On the issue of whether Dawson was lying in wait, Enright argued that the defendant left his hidden position in the upstairs bedroom and began firing as soon as Mrs. Dawson came into the house. Brower contended that Dawson was waiting not to kill her but to talk to her. The defense attorney also maintained that Dawson and his ex-wife argued before the shooting, bringing an end to any possible period of lying in wait.
Brower contended that the shooting was a classic case of a crime of passion and that his client therefore should not be convicted of anything more serious than manslaughter. The killing, Brower argued, was an act of a man "who is either whacked out or totally and completely desperate."
"This was a crime of passion . . . jealousy . . . obsession . . . and rage," Brower argued. "This is a disturbed man whose mental condition was made even worse by drinking."
First-degree murder must be premeditated. Brower argued that, in Dawson's case, the killing could not have been premeditated because of his mental condition.
Prosecutor Enright argued that Brower's theory might hold up had Mrs. Dawson been killed inside the house. But when she escaped the house, Dawson changed guns and shot her on the sidewalk, felling her with one shot, Enright said.
"Then he walked over to her and shot her four more times; every step he took towards her after he winged her was a step toward first-degree murder," Enright argued. "It was an execution."
The jurors began their deliberations late Monday. If they return a first-degree murder verdict but do not find that Dawson was lying in wait, he could be sentenced to 25 years to life. A second-degree murder verdict would mean a sentence of 15 years to life, and voluntary manslaughter carries a sentence of 3 to 11 years.