Man convicted in 1981 killing

Posted: February 19, 2005

Dennis Flanagan was a skinny, long-haired 17-year-old when he pleaded guilty to the 1981 murder of a gay man in a Bensalem industrial park.

But in July, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted him a new trial, and Flanagan, now a graying 41-year-old, returned to Bucks County Court this week to resume his bid for freedom.

Witnesses had died and scattered. Evidence had been lost. Memories had faded.

But Flanagan's murder retrial ultimately changed nothing. He still will serve life in prison.

After six hours of deliberation, a jury last night convicted Flanagan of second-degree murder in the July 1, 1981, beating death of James Redman. He will be sentenced next week, but the crime carries an automatic penalty of life in prison.

"Flanagan was where he always was supposed to be, serving life in prison," said First Assistant District Attorney David Zellis, who prosecuted the case.

Flanagan seemed almost satisfied as he was led away in handcuffs. "This is the closest I've had to a real day in court in 25 years," he said.

Twenty-four years earlier, the Feasterville man had pleaded guilty to a general homicide charge in the death of Redman, 26, a Northampton Township church organist. After a two-day degree-of-guilt hearing, a judge had ruled Flanagan guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

A second defendant, George Yacob of Feasterville, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. Yacob, now 43, also is serving life.

Zellis asserted that Yacob and Flanagan conspired to rob Redman because he was gay. Seeing him as an easy mark, they lured him to the industrial park with a false promise of sex. When Redman fought back, they beat, stabbed and choked him, finishing him off by dropping a large rock on his head, Zellis said.

Flanagan testified that he innocently had gone for a ride with Yacob in Redman's car when Redman tried to grope him. He said Yacob flew into a homophobic rage, dragged Redman from the car, ordered Flanagan to drive away, and beat Redman to death.

"I didn't know why this was happening," Flanagan testified Thursday. "I had never seen George so angry."

Yacob gave similar testimony this week. But in 1981, both men had given different versions that implicated Flanagan.

In July, the state Supreme Court threw out Flanagan's conviction, ruling that he had not been fully informed of the facts he was admitting to at the time he pleaded guilty.

That issue was hardly new. Flanagan raised it in a petition he filed in 1988. Even after the courts appointed a lawyer to assist Flanagan, "the case lay dormant for 10 years," Justice Thomas Saylor wrote in the majority opinion.

The delay never was explained, but Saylor wrote that "The systemic problem manifested in this case . . . does not go without notice."

The time lapse made it difficult for investigators and lawyers to reconstruct their cases.

Prosecution witnesses, some of them adolescents in 1981, were tracked down several states away. Most were reluctant to return. One wept when contacted to testify, Zellis said.

"There were witnesses that we couldn't locate," added defense attorney Randall Miller, and some witnesses had died.

"It is a huge challenge to try a case 24 years later," Zellis said. "Some have crystal-clear memories of the entire period, while others have put it so far in the recesses of their minds, they just don't remember."

Among the dead were the victim's parents. In their stead, two white-haired aunts sat through the trial.

"We're pleased that justice was done," said one of them, Marjorie Donchey of Cape May Court House. "I'm sure my sister and her husband would be pleased if they were still here."

Contact staff writer Larry King at 215-345-0446 or lking@phillynews.com.

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