Historical Series: The Time Accused Husband Killer, Lydia Dean, Cried for Him to Come Back
VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – Historical Series: “The Time Accused Husband Killer, Lydia Dean, Cried for Him to Come Back” Part Five. The jury of seven men and five women sat in the jury box in Courtroom 1 of the Venango County Courthouse listening to the prosecution’s case against 21-year-old Lydia Dean.
Photo above: Lydia Dean being escorted to court by Sheriff J.E. Cunningham and Deputy Grace Bell. Photo credit: AP Wirephoto.
Lydia was on trial for the first-degree murder of her husband, Air Force Tech Sergeant Ronald Dean.
Ronald had recently returned from a 17-month deployment to England, where, Lydia learned, he had fallen in love with an Englishwoman named Brenda Saville Gray, who was pregnant with his child.
Before she lifted the barrel of the .45-70 caliber buffalo gun to his head as he lay sleeping on the couch of his parents’ Pleasantville home, Lydia had disabled the phone and two of the three cars. After pulling the trigger, she fled the scene in her father-in-law’s car with her three-year-old daughter in tow.
.45-70 “Buffalo Rifle” reproduction. Credit: The Hunter Wikia.
The jury had heard all the evidence against Lydia. Most of it came by her own admission to authorities in the hours and days following the murder.
The prosecution laid it on thick, calling eight witnesses that included law enforcement officers, the family that Lydia fled to the night of the murder, and members of Ronald Dean’s family. They all seemed unified in their testimony against Lydia.
Lydia, they said, murdered her husband in cold blood because he wanted a divorce in order to marry Gray.
The defense had a different story to tell, and they focused on motive, too.
On the afternoon of the fourth day of the trial, Lydia Dean took the stand as the defense’s first witness.
She told the story of falling in love with Ronald after meeting him at a dance in Baguio City, her home town. The airman called her the next day, and every day after that, confessing his love for her after only two weeks. Within six months, the 25-year-old airman asked her to marry him. She was only 17 at the time.
About six months later, they were married and honeymooning in a cottage on the Air Force base.
Marriage contract between Ronald Dean and Lydia Dean, 1953. Credit: “Philippines Marriages, 1723-1957”, database, FamilySearch https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:H195-916Z : 15 February 2020
When Ronald was transferred back to the States, Lydia came with him, expecting their daughter. She described how her mother-in-law made the trip to Erie to see them with frequency, excited for the birth of her granddaughter.
Everything seemed to be going well until Ronald got his orders for England. He had two choices: go alone for 17 months, or take his wife and child and stay for three years.
Lydia, she testified, wanted to go to England. But Ronald insisted she stay. He arranged for an apartment in Pleasantville for his wife and child, then off to England he went.
At first, Lydia received three letters a week from her husband. That lasted about three months. Then, the letters slowed to about once a week. By August of 1957, his letters stopped altogether.
Then, in October, she heard from her husband who complained about England. Lydia wanted to join him there, but he told her there weren’t any family living quarters and the weather was terrible. Lydia decided to just wait for him to come home in December.
When he came home, Lydia testified, he was a different person. Violent and mean.
This is where I have to take a break in the story to tell you something about myself.
I love good lawyering. I mean, I really love it. Even on the one occasion where I’ve been on the receiving end of good lawyering, I had to give it to the guy. He was good, and it pleased me.
Lydia’s lawyers, J. G. McGill and Estanislao Fernandez? They were good. Very good.
Lydia Dean, followed by one of her defense lawyers, future Philippine Supreme Court Justice Estanislao Fernandez, walking to the courthouse.
You see, in a murder trial, as in any trial, the burden is on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And who determines what is reasonable? Well, jurors receive instruction on the legal definition of reasonable doubt. But I have some experience in this having served on a jury in a double homicide case. I can tell you, once you’re deliberating with your fellow jurors, it’s up to each individual juror to decide what they think is reasonable.
McGill and Fernandez knew this. They were counting on it.
Over the next couple of days of the trial, Lydia’s team called multiple witnesses to the stand just to ask them about her character. Was she a good person? Did she treat others fairly? Did she seem happy? Was she of good moral stature?
It got to the point of ridiculousness.
Venango County District Attorney Robert T. Grannis. Photo credit: The Derrick, 1961.
At one point, District Attorney Robert T. Grannis stood up and offered to stipulate that Lydia was a fine, upstanding person. He argued that they didn’t have to hear from anybody else on the matter. Lydia’s attorney did not accept his offer, calling up witness after witness. Twelve in all.
But did you see what happened there? The defense got the prosecution to testify that Lydia was a good person.
That’s good lawyering. I’m smiling as I write this.
The following day, the defense pivoted. Their witnesses were matrons of the Venango County Jail as well as a doctor who made a medical examination of Lydia in the jail on the evening of December 9, two days after Ronald was shot.
Their testimony all concurred that the only bruising on Lydia was on her lip and her left hip. There was no bruising, they said, anywhere near the front of her shoulders.
The picture that the defense was drawing for the jury was that, if Lydia purposefully raised that .45 caliber buffalo gun to her shoulder and squeezed the trigger, there would be bruising on her shoulder.
If, however, she had the gun in her hands and it accidentally went off, striking Ronald Dean in the face with a lead bullet almost a half inch in diameter, it couldn’t be murder. It was an accident.
That’s exactly the presentation they made to the jury in their closing arguments.
The prosecution, in contrast, painted an image of a jilted wife, angry at her husband for impregnating a stranger and wanting to leave her. Her motive, the prosecution said, was rage.
The jury deliberated for five hours and seventeen minutes before returning their verdict.
Handwritten verdict in the trial of Lydia Dean.
Lydia remained motionless for a moment after the verdict was read. Then, as she began to cry, said softly, “I want my husband.”
Read Part One: Historical Series: The Time the World’s Gaze Was on Venango County and Peace Hung in the Balance
Read Part Two: Historical Series: The Time Venango County Rallied Behind an Accused Murderess
Read Part Three: Historical Series: The Time a Future Supreme Court Justice Defended an Accused Murderer in Venango County
Read Part Four: Historical Series: The Time the Trial of an Accused Husband Killer, Lydia Dean, Began
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Special Thanks: The staff of the prothonotary’s office at the Venango County Courthouse have, once again, gone above and beyond in helping me find old court records. It’s thanks to their efforts that I have the official details of the court proceedings of Lydia Dean’s case.
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