Donald Southworth challenges evidence in appeal of murder conviction

jkegley@herald-leader.comDecember 5, 2012 

The only incriminating evidence presented during Donald Southworth's murder trial was a single drop of blood that contained his DNA and the fact that he was 20 minutes late for work the day his wife's body was found, according to an appeal brief filed with the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The rest of the evidence that led Fayette County jurors to find Southworth guilty of beating his wife to death was "a plethora of irrelevant and prejudicial evidence" which jurors should not have heard, defense attorneys argued in trying to overturn his conviction.

Attorney General Jack Conway's Office of Criminal Appeals, which represents the state in appeals cases, has until Dec. 10 to present its brief detailing the arguments for upholding Southworth's conviction. Conway's office could ask for a deadline extension.

Meanwhile, the most substantial document filed in the case — which is now in the hands of the Kentucky Supreme Court — remains the 50-page defense brief, which was filed Oct. 11 by two attorneys representing Southworth.

Public defenders Shannon Dupree and Jason Hart argued that Southworth's conviction should be overturned based on several factors, including incomplete or improper evidence and testimony.

Southworth, 50, is serving a life sentence at Northpoint Training Center in Boyle County. At the end of a two-week trial in January, jurors found him guilty of murder in the death of his wife, Umi Southworth, who was badly beaten and left for dead behind their Meadowthorpe Avenue home in June 2010.

The highly publicized trial was based largely on circumstantial evidence, with little physical evidence — such as fingerprints or DNA — linking Don Southworth to the crime. The defense brief takes issue with much of the evidence and testimony, citing a number of alleged fair-trial violations.

The sole piece of physical evidence that could link Don Southworth to the crime, according to the brief, was a drop of blood containing Don Southworth's DNA on Umi Southworth's nightgown. The nightgown was found near Umi Southworth's naked body.

"However, there was no way to know how old the blood drop was," the brief said.

Umi Southworth was found with a severe head injury under a box spring in a "hobo camp" in a wooded area behind their home. A belt was found around her neck and a vaginal swab revealed traces of semen. But the belt did not contain any of Don Southworth's DNA and the semen was not his, according to the brief and forensic tests presented at trial.

At trial, the semen was addressed by Hesti Johnson, who was Don Southworth's "second wife" while he was married to Umi. Johnson testified that Don Southworth had once inserted a condom inside her that contained semen from another man.

Much of the 50-page appeal brief by Southworth's attorneys calls Johnson's truthfulness into question, noting that Johnson never mentioned the condom incident to counselors or police before Umi Southworth was killed.

Johnson was not the only witness who prejudiced jurors against Don Southworth, the brief said. Much of the testimony from 10 other witnesses dealt with Don Southworth's interactions with his wife, rather than evidence of the crime.

Statements "about Donald's alleged belief that he thought that women were inferior were highly prejudicial," the brief said.

Defense attorneys also argued that defense witnesses were improperly barred from testifying and that pretrial publicity, namely articles in the Herald-Leader about past domestic violence allegations against Don Southworth, "compromised Donald's right to a fair, impartial and indifferent jury free from outside influences."

After the attorney general's office files its brief, Southworth's attorneys will have a chance to file a written response before the case is presented to a Supreme Court justice for review. The Supreme Court could uphold the conviction or overturn it, requiring a new trial.

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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