The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

May 21, 2014

Young’s fate in jurors’ hands

FRENCH CREEK TOWNSHIP — Call it gamesmanship, oneupsmanship or something else, the lead prosecutor in the Ralph L. Young murder case played it Tuesday.

Assistant Mercer County District Attorney Daniel W. Davis used his ability to get in the last word to highlight a detail that had not been touched on by any witness to bolster the credibility of DNA evidence in the murder case.

While he said there are many pieces to the puzzle jurors must put together to convict Young, DNA evidence is “the centerpiece of the puzzle,” he said.

Young’s DNA was found on the handle of a milk jug containing a likely petroleum-based product, such as diesel fuel or kerosene. The fluid was never tested to definitively say what it is.

The milk jug was found by the body of Young’s brother-in-law, David A. Dignall, who had been shot and his body burned Dec. 20, 2012, on Hollobaugh Road in French Creek Township.

Defense attorney Alexander H. Lindsay Jr. continually tried to put in doubt the supposition that the presence of Young’s DNA meant that he was at the scene, most notably by eliciting testimony from an expert that there is no way of knowing when DNA is placed on an object.

In his closing argument Tuesday, Davis, who, as prosecutor, got to make his argument after the defense attorney, showed the seven-woman, five-man jury the sell-by date on the jug – Dec. 26, 2012.

That, he said, puts to rest Lindsay’s argument that Young could have touched the jug at any time in the distant past, even years before.

Appealing to the jurors’ experience with buying and using milk, Davis said, “It (DNA) had to have been there no more than a few days before it was found.”

The way Davis presented that apparently confused jurors, who were given the case starting at 5 p.m.

During deliberations they asked whether they could consider that sell-by date.

“You don’t have a record before you that tells you a lot about that date,” Mercer County Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher J. St. John responded. “That doesn’t mean you disregard it. You should just be cautious about it.”

Jurors were debating whether Young committed first- or third-degree murder, arson and/or abuse of a corpse.

St. John dismissed one charge of arson related the possession of “an incendiary or explosive material.” Diesel and kerosene have high flash points and a witness testified that they are unlikely to explode.

The defense completed its short case Tuesday, most notably with the testimony of a former FBI agent and specialist in foot and tire impressions, who said the state police failed “to pursue this evidence.”

Such evidence can help determine who committed a crime, and help eliminate possible suspects, said William J. Bodziak.

He also countered state police testimony that covering a scene or certain potential evidence from the weather is a bad idea.

Police testified it was raining, sleeting, snowing and windy the night Dignall was killed. State police protocol generally says that evidence not be covered so as not to contaminate it.

First responders said they do not have the training or equipment to take casts of impressions or suitable photographs, and the forensic service unit member who does have the equipment and training, Stanley J. Majocka III, did not arrive until 9:25 p.m., roughly four hours after Dignall died. Majocka testified that detail sufficient to make foot or tire impressions helpful had been washed out by the rain and the edges of the impressions were damaged.

Lindsay used the testimony about weather conditions to throw water on testimony from passersby of seeing a man in a plaid jacket, blue pants and facial hair milling around on Hollobaugh Road.

“How many thousands of men in Mercer County meet that description?” he asked. “Their identification is tenuous.”

While police confiscated from Young a plaid shirt and blue pants he said he wore the day Dignall was killed, they didn’t test the clothing for the presence of Dignall’s tissue or fuel, which he is accused of having poured to set the body and Dignall’s van on fire, Lindsay said.

Davis said the citizen testimony is one thing to consider as part of the overall picture of the case, others being:

• Young’s admission he was in the area at about the time Dignall died. He denied being on Hollobaugh Road that day.

• Three telephone calls Young made to Dignall just before Dignall died.

• Dignall died of a 12-gauge shotgun blast and Young had access to a shotgun that has since disappeared.

• Young claimed his van’s brakes were squealing – his stated reason for seeking out Dignall that day – but a state police certified inspection mechanic examined the brakes and found them to be in good shape.

• Young had differed with Dignall and his wife, who is Young’s sister, over how to run a ministry on property the Dignalls owned, but had been the property of Young’s parents in Canal Township, Venango County.

“You have to look at the whole picture,” Davis said. “The evidence in this case is overwhelming” for a finding of guilty.

Lindsay downplayed the significance of any of those points and challenged the timeline.

The last call Young made to Dignall was at 5:08 p.m., and police believe Dignall died between 5:10 and 5:28 p.m. Young’s sister said he was at their parents’ house in Canal Township between 5:30 and 6 p.m. to help care for their father. There was no testimony concerning distances or driving times from those locations.

“This guy must be a genius if he can shoot a family member in the back, splash this diesel fuel around, race back to his mom’s home and get dad out of bed,” Lindsay said.

He continued his attack on the state police investigation and their attempts to get Young to confess by falsely telling them they had evidence against him.

“I wish these police officers had spent less time putting false evidence at this guy and looking at real evidence.”

Davis backed the police saying they did “an excellent job under trying conditions.”

The jury heard testimony from 29 witnesses – 26 for the prosecution and three for the defense – over four days of testimony. Fifteen of the witnesses were police or investigative professionals, and nine were members of the Dignall and/or Young families.

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