A 64-year-old Thomson man was convicted of murder in a one-day trial in McDuffie County Superior Court last Friday.
Dennis Clemons, who formerly lived on First Street in Thomson, was found guilty following a bench trial before Toombs Judicial Circuit Chief Superior Court Judge Roger W. Dunaway, Jr. Mr. Clemons had waived a jury trial. He formerly worked as a janitor at the McDuffie County Sheriff's Department. He had retired prior to the fatal shooting of his sister-in-law.
His conviction on the charges of malice murder, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon was in connection with the shooting death of Shirley Hunt on July 31, 2008. The slaying took place in a bedroom of Ms. Hunt's single-wide mobile home off Hobbs Mill Road, near Dearing.
Judge Dunaway's finding of guilt came shortly before 4 p.m. with McDuffie County Superior Court Clerk Connie Cheatham reading his decision to a courtroom consisting mostly of Ms. Hunt's relatives. Mr. Clemons' son sat opposite of them.
Afterwards, Judge Dunaway sentenced Mr. Clemons to life in prison, plus five years on each of the other two counts to run consecutively to the life sentence. Since his arrest just a short while after the slaying, he has been held in the Columbia County Detention Center in Appling on the request of McDuffie County Sheriff Logan Marshall.
Mr. Clemons, donning a navy blue pinned-stripped suit, conferred with his defense attorney William Wheeler, of Thomson and was seen talking to Sheriff Marshall during break periods. Sheriff Marshall and Mr. Clemons were close friends and grew up together in the same neighborhood.
The defendant never took the stand in his own defense. The only time he testified was to dispute statements made by a lieutenant and former jailer at the Columbia County Detention Center in Appling. Those two witnesses, Lt. John Sherman and Robert Bledsoe, who no longer works for the sheriff's department, testified that while moving Mr. Clemons from a cell block for his first appearance hearing before a magistrate judge, that he made statements referencing that he shot Ms. Hunt. That hearing took place on Aug. 2, 2008.
Prosecuting the case for the state was Toombs Judicial Circuit Chief Assistant District Attorney Durwood Davis, who called nine witnesses to the stand, including a Thomson man who said he drove Mr. Clemons to Shirley Hunt's home the night of the shooting.
Another witness called to testify for the state was 8-year-old Dylan Hobbs, who heard shots fired in Ms. Hunt's bedroom, while hiding under her bed.
In opening remarks, Mr. Davis told Judge Dunaway that Mr. Clemons blamed Ms. Hunt for the marital problems that had led to the separation of him and his wife, Dorothy Mae Clemons, Ms. Hunt's sister. He said the state also would prove that Mr. Clemons shot Ms. Hunt twice in the back with a 9 mm handgun, which was never found by local and state authorities.
Mr. Davis also said he would introduce testimony that Ms. Hunt gave a dying admission as to the man that killed her.
The defendant's attorney, Mr. Wheeler, meanwhile, said in his opening remarks that his client did not commit the shooting. He claimed there was reasonable doubt that Mr. Clemons murdered Ms. Hunt.
Mr. Clemons' estranged wife, Dorothy Mae Clemons, testified that her husband owned a 9 mm handgun, but that she hadn't seen it in a while.
The assistant district attorney brought out the fact that Mr. Clemons liked his 9 mm handgun so much that he nicknamed it, "Nina Mae."
Ms. Clemons also said she had no idea how three letters addressed to her residence at 401 First Street ended up on the bed of her sister. The letters later were taken into evidence by authorities following the fatal shooting of Ms. Hunt.
In cross-examination questioning of Ms. Clemons by Mr. Wheeler, she indicated that her husband had mentally abused her, but had never physically harmed her. During re-direct by Mr. Davis, Ms. Clemons said her husband had physically threatened her, but never carried out any of those threats.
Little Dylan Hobbs, who called Ms. Hunt his grandmother because she was the girlfriend of his Daddy, Melvin Floyd, of Thomson, testified that he was hiding under Ms. Hunt's bed when he heard shots being fired.
Mr. Wheeler contended that the little boy never saw Mr. Clemons shoot anybody. He also pointed out that the witness couldn't even identify the man he saw that night in open court. The little boy was even confused, according to Mr. Wheeler, as to the number of shots he actually heard that night. He couldn't remember if he heard two shots or three shots, the defense attorney said.
Mr. Floyd later testified that he had to tell his son a lie in order to get him into court last Friday.
He said Dylan was scared and that he never wanted to talk about the shooting. Shortly afterwards, Dylan, according to Mr. Floyd, used a pencil to draw a circle around a photograph of Mr. Clemons that he saw in The McDuffie Mirror of the suspect being arrested by local and state authorities.
Mr. Floyd, who had been dating Ms. Hunt for several months, said he was talking on the phone with Ms. Hunt prior to the shooting while getting French fries for his son at a restaurant near Thomson. The conversation between them ended when Ms. Hunt indicated that someone was knocking at her door.
Between five and six minutes later, Ms. Hunt telephoned Mr. Floyd back. Mr. Floyd testified that Ms. Hunt told him, "'Melvin, hurry down, I've been shot. Dennis just shot me."'
Another state's witness was Tommy "Pee Wee" Hampton, of Thomson.
Mr. Hampton said he had driven Mr. Clemons to a package store on the afternoon of the shooting and later drove Mr. Clemons in the defendant's pickup truck to Dearing - specifically to the home of Shirley Hunt.
He testified that while waiting in the truck, Mr. Clemons went inside the mobile home and that he later "heard some shooting."
Mr. Hampton said, "I was scared." He added that Mr. Clemons told him that he would kill both him and his mother if he opened his mouth and told anybody anything.
The witness said he never saw Mr. Clemons with a gun.
Other witnesses called to testify by Mr. Davis included Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Charles Kicklighter and GBI Crime Scene Specialist Steve Foster.