The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)
Although Devon Dunham confessed to fatally shooting former Hardeeville volunteer fire chief Ernest Martin Stevens in a public parking lot in 2017, a Jasper County jury found him not guilty of murder Thursday.
Dunham breathed an audible sigh of relief through his face mask after hearing the verdict and softly fist-bumped his attorney.
The jury deliberated less than two hours.
Stevens, 77, was shot to death just before 9 a.m. Aug. 10, 2017, while sitting in the driver’s seat of his Ford F-150 truck in the Argent Square parking lot near his home off Ulman Street in Hardeeville.
Dunham, 28 and living at Hardeeville at the time, was arrested related to the killing a day later in Savannah. His trial started Tuesday in Ridgeland on charges of murder and possessing a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.
Because he was not found guilty of murder, he could not be found guilty of the latter charge.
Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday, 19 witnesses were called, including neighbors who saw or heard the shooting, law enforcement officers involved in the investigation and arrest, and experts who reviewed evidence such as a 9 mm handgun, spent bullets, the autopsy report, footprints at the scene and Dunham’s confession to police.
The closing arguments
During closing arguments on Thursday, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone wove together a story of a frustrated Dunham searching for a ride when he came across Stevens.
“… He sees a target,” Stone said. “A 77-year-old man alone with a running truck. What great fortune for Devon Dunham, a vulnerable elderly man by himself.”
Stone alleged Dunham walked up to Stevens, told him to give him the truck, then unloaded all eight rounds in his 9 mm handgun when Stevens tried to drive away.
“He shot Mr. Stevens because he was losing his ride,” Stone claimed, adding here’s no argument of the facts because “most of what I told you Devon Dunham told you” in his admission to police.
Dunham’s defense attorney, Beaufort-based Jeffery Stephens, said Dunham wanted a ride but felt threatened by Stevens, and that’s when he began firing shots.
He also said Dunham “is not the best communicator,” which may have affected how he explained what happened to Hardeeville officers after his arrest. By the time Dunham admitted to shooting Stevens, he had been handcuffed to a wall in the interview room for six hours and was “sleep deprived,” his attorney said.
The defense began arguing that race, Dunham being a Black man and Stevens being white, could have played a part in the incident, but Stone objected and the judge agreed to not allow the theory.
Dunham’s lack of “intent to harm means it’s not murder,” Stephens said.
In South Carolina law, murder is “the killing of any person with malice aforethought, either express or implied.” The prosecutors have to prove the charge “beyond a reasonable doubt” and all 12 jurors must agree on whether the verdict is guilty or not guilty.
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