Jury finds Southworth guilty; recommends life in prison

Jury recommends life sentence for killing his wifeDefense attorney says he's shocked by the verdict

jhewlett@herald-leader.comJanuary 21, 2012 

A Fayette Circuit Court jury found Donald Southworth guilty of murder Friday in the 2010 beating death of his wife, Umi.

The jury reached the verdict after deliberating for about three hours and 20 minutes. Not long after that, jurors recommended that Southworth receive a life sentence. Sentencing by Fayette Circuit Judge Kimberly Bunnell is scheduled for Feb. 24.

"Justice has been served. All along, we knew he did it," said Bam Sutardjo, a friend of Umi Southworth. He said he and his wife protected Umi from her husband for a couple of days several years ago.

He said he once told Donald Southworth: "Don, you are a dangerous person."

Umi Southworth, 44, was found severely beaten beneath a box spring in a brushy area behind her home on Meadowthorpe Avenue on June 9, 2010. She was pronounced dead the following day after life support was removed. The case drew widespread attention because police did not realize for hours after they found her that she was still breathing.

Umi had skull fractures caused by blows from an object or objects, and those head injuries caused her death, according to testimony from Dr. John Hunsaker III, who performed an autopsy. Witnesses said they thought Umi was attacked with a large branch and perhaps other pieces of wood.

Defense attorney Russell Baldani said Donald Southworth will definitely appeal. In the meantime, if Bunnell follows the jury's recommendation, Southworth, 49, will be eligible for parole consideration in 20 years.

"My reaction, I guess I want to say, is shock," Baldani said of the verdict and sentence recommendation. He said prosecutors failed to produce evidence.

"We never believed, still don't believe, that he did it, or there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt that he did it," the attorney said.

Baldani said he was glad that DNA is kept forever, because "as we all know, people are exonerated years after they are convicted when science is produced to tell the truth."

Fayette Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson said the prosecution team is pleased about the jury's decisions. He said assistant commonwealth's attorneys Kathy Phillips and Lou Anna Red Corn did a "spectacular" job in the trial.

"This guy committed a pretty horrible crime," Larson said. He said the prosecution's case was difficult because it was based on circumstantial evidence.

Larson also said the case was sad because a nice woman who probably was never happy in her marriage wanted to pursue the American dream, "and he wouldn't let her do it."

The trial lasted eight days. There were numerous witnesses and about 230 exhibits. But there was virtually no direct evidence — witnesses or physical evidence — tying Donald Southworth, a truck driver for UPS, to the slaying of his wife, a former teacher who worked at Fazoli's restaurant headquarters in Lexington.

"If we don't accept it (circumstantial evidence), then it becomes survival of the slickest," Larson told jurors Friday morning in his closing statement, describing Donald Southworth as a very smart, weird, manipulative control freak.

Prosecutors called a series of witnesses who testified that Umi Southworth seemed meek and timid whenever they saw her with her husband. When Umi was alone, they said, she was more outgoing. Witnesses testified that Umi had secret bank accounts and indicated that she had hidden from her husband on occasions out of fear.

Prosecutors maintained that Donald Southworth killed Umi because he was a controlling person and he couldn't control her.

Umi had plans to move to Nashville with the couple's daughter, Almira, now 14, in part to further the girl's music career, according to court testimony. Almira is a folk singer who plays guitar and other instruments. She has performed throughout Central Kentucky.

Donald and Umi Southworth were getting a divorce, witnesses and attorneys in the case said. Donald Southworth told police repeatedly that his wife was having an affair, according to testimony and recordings played at the trial.

Defense attorney Tucker Richardson, in his closing statement, told jurors that prosecutors tried to use Donald Southworth's character to make their case.

"They had a bunch of witnesses come up here and malign Don's character," Richardson said.

Richardson said Southworth liked to talk and talk and talk. The attorney was referring to Southworth's asking personal questions of his neighbors, and his recorded conversations with police, in which he talked about everything from Almira's career to his and Umi's sex life.

"He has no social skills," Richardson said.

Richardson said Southworth was not happy about the divorce, but he had accepted it.

He said police got tunnel vision in their investigation and focused on Donald Southworth to the exclusion of all others.

Testimony in the trial was at times graphic and gruesome, with talk about flies and maggots being found around, on and in Umi's body when she was found. There also was testimony about Donald Southworth taking another woman into his home as a second wife. He and the woman, Yogi Hesti Johnson, had a daughter.

Some of the testimony focused on semen. Umi Southworth was found with semen in her body, but it was not her husband's, according to witnesses. Defense attorneys maintained that Umi was raped. Yogi Hesti Johnson, who now lives in Indiana, tearfully testified that in 2005, Donald Southworth had inserted a used condom containing another man's sperm into her body.

Defense attorneys criticized the police investigation in the Southworth case and repeatedly questioned law enforcement witnesses about why certain items were not documented or collected as evidence. Officers cited a general limit on the number of items in a particular case that the Kentucky State Police central crime laboratory will accept for testing for blood and DNA; the size of some items involved in the Southworth case, such as the box spring and a washing machine; and evidence-destroying rain as reasons for certain items not being collected.

Larson, in his closing statement, said that police wished some things had been done differently. But he said a "massive" amount of work was done on the Southworth case.

In the months leading to the trial, Bunnell sealed some documents pertaining to the case and apparently refused to allow testimony from certain people in the trial.

Jurors never heard from another wife of Donald Southworth, Nirmayati Ching Lee Southworth, who, according to a court document, told officials that Donald Southworth had controlled her through mental and physical abuse. According to the document, Nirmayati Southworth married Donald Southworth in 1983 and staged her own abduction in 1992 to get away from him. She changed her identity and has lived in hiding from Donald Southworth since then, according to the document.

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service