Jury deliberates in killing of Sabina O’Donnell

Posted: May 10, 2012

Assistant District Attorney Richard Sax at times spoke directly to accused killer Donte Johnson in his closing argument Tuesday as he described the rape, beating, and eventual killing of Sabina Rose O’Donnell.

“He took everything from her,” Sax said as Johnson, 20, stared back intently, his jaw clenched, his face expressionless. “Her dignity, her womanhood, her freedom, her life. And you’ve given us back zero in terms of remorse or contrition. ... He gave us nothing.”

Gary Server, Johnson’s attorney, described Johnson in his closing argument as “feebleminded” and “one can short of a six-pack” — someone whose childlike brain did not know what he was doing when he confessed to the June 2010 killing. He asked jurors to view the DNA evidence in the case with skepticism.

“DNA science has a great tendency to mislead,” Server said. “TV and movies have us all brainwashed into thinking DNA is the most important evidence.”

Closing arguments were delivered on the seventh day of the trial to a courtroom filled with more than two dozen of O’Donnell’s relatives and friends, as well as Johnson’s family and loved ones. After Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn Bronson gave instructions to the jury of six men and six women, they deliberated for two hours before leaving for the day. Deliberations were to resume Wednesday.

Server urged jurors not to let sympathy for O’Donnell’s family interfere with their ability to render a verdict, saying he and cocounsel Lee Mandell were “as saddened” by the case as anyone.

“Justice for Sabina doesn’t mean that we convict the wrong person,” Server said.

Server’s comments set off a fiery rebuttal from Sax.

“How dare anyone talk about justice for Sabina?” he demanded. “Don’t you get it? Don’t you understand that there will never be justice for Sabina?”

Johnson faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder. Prosecutors allege that he preyed on O’Donnell, 20, after he saw her biking home to her apartment at Fourth Street and Girard Avenue. He is charged with dragging her into a vacant lot behind her building and beating, raping, and strangling her there.

The bulk of Server and Mandell’s defense was dedicated to a neuropsychologist’s testimony that Johnson has a low IQ and suffers from brain damage he likely sustained in utero. He has been diagnosed with learning disabilities and has limited communication and intellectual-processing skills, as well as an impaired memory, Server said — impairments that would have interfered with his ability to give a truthful statement to police.

Server said prosecutors never proved that the lab machines used in the DNA testing were operating properly when they were used to analyze Johnson’s DNA.

Sax dismissed that argument as “nonsense” and called the testimony regarding Johnson’s brain damage and memory impairment “laughable.”

“You don’t forget what you did to that girl,” he said, looking again at Johnson, “and you never will.”

Contact Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or asteele@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AESteele.

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