After serving over 2½ years in prison, Donna Dunning is now a free woman.
Dunning, 63, pleaded guilty to third-degree assault, a Class C felony, in Wallowa County Circuit Court Wednesday, Nov. 9. She was sentenced to 12 months of jail, with credit for time served.
The plea came less than two months after the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned Dunning’s conviction for attempted murder and second-degree assault in February 2009. “I’m pretty happy, but pretty devastated, too. I’ve been through a lot,” said Dunning after she entered the plea.
She was flanked in court by Wes Williams of La Grande and Milo Pope of Baker City, the two attorneys who represented her through the trial and appeal process.
As agreed to by her attorneys and Wallowa County District Attorney Mona K. Williams, visiting judge Gregory Baxter ordered two years post-prison supervision for Dunning. He noted, however, that she has already served her time and was free to go back to Washington state, where she has been staying with family members since being released from prison Oct. 31.
Dunning’s trial and new plea stem from a tragic incident near Flora on Jan. 18, 2007, that left two men dead. Her cousin, Dennis Beach, was shot by Dunning’s companion, Shane Huntsman, in a confrontation over cattle. Huntsman was subsequently shot and killed by Beach’s son, Travis.
In the trial, Dunning was convicted of assaulting and trying to kill Travis by hitting him over the head with a rock when he was struggling with Huntsman over his rifle.
The attempted murder and assault-2 convictions carried mandatory Measure 11 sentences of 90 months (7½ years) and 70 months, respectively, to be served concurrently.
In Nov. 9’s plea, Dunning pleaded guilty of third-degree assault by handing Huntsman a rock during the struggle so he could injure Beach.
During the plea proceeding, District Attorney Williams said that Travis Beach and his mother had agreed to the new plea agreement.
The district attorney later said that they were a major factor in deciding not to re-try the case when it was remanded back to Wallowa County by the appeals court. She pointed out that the incident had occurred almost five years ago. “They are at a point in their lives that they are ready to move on,” she said, adding that to go through another trial would basically “re-traumatize them.”
The plea and deal that Dunning agreed to Nov. 9, including the 12-month jail sentence, were very similar to an arrangement she turned down before the 2009 trial. Williams said Dunning at that time “decided to roll the dice and go to trial.”
Defense attorney Wes Williams disagreed. “She didn’t roll the dice, she merely exercised her Constitutional right to go to trial.” He also said there was one very big difference between the third-degree assault plea offer before the trial and the one his client accepted. In the first plea offer “Donna would have had to admit to hitting Travis with the rock, something she didn’t do,” he said. “That told volumes about Donna’s character. She refused to tell a lie.”
The district attorney said that she disagreed with the decision of the appeals court to reverse Dunning’s decision because the prosecution’s “expert witness” on memory, Deputy Eric Kozowski, did not qualify as an expert. During the trial, Kozowski testified that as time passes after a traumatic event, a person’s memory of that event improves. The prosecution used his testimony to help explain why Travis Beach did not initially accuse Dunning of hitting him with a rock.
“It was not an issue that we thought was a big issue,” said Mona Williams about the appeals court reversal. “We were not trying to qualify Eric as an expert witness, but … relying on his observations, training and experience.”
Though she still feels there is more to the story and Dunning’s role in it, the district attorney said that she is satisfied that justice was done with the new plea for Dunning. “She was held accountable for playing a role in the tragedy, and she served almost three years in prison,” the district attorney said.
For her part, Dunning said she is looking forward to the future and not the past. Her plans are “only to enjoy my family to the max, like I’ve always done. I’m not ready to make decisions.”
Dunning said that when she heard the appeals court’s decision, “I was ecstatic, but still scared. … I have the best attorneys there are.” She summed up her feelings: “Freedom is the greatest joy on earth. To love and be loved is the greatest joy.”
Dunning declined to talk about her time in prison. “When I walked out that door, I left that behind,” she said.