Family fights parole of killer convicted 20 years ago

James Lawson, who killed and dismembered Cheryl Durkin 20 years ago, should not get parole, family says.

It’s been 20 years since Cheryl Durkin was killed in a Middletown house and her mutilated torso was found on the bank of the Great Miami River in Hamilton.

It’s been nearly 20 years since James Lawson was convicted in a Butler County courtroom of Durkin’s slaying and cutting her body up in the basement of the Garfield Street house.

MORE: Forensic expert who identified Durkin’s remains recently investigated bones found in West Chester Twp.

This week he will have his parole hearing. Durkin’s sister, Karla Edwards, is fighting his release with reams of yellowed newspaper coverage of the crime, social media and her own voice. When she met recently with a member of the parole board she turned over 1,010 signatures on a petition against Lawson’s release.

“That doesn’t count the people who wrote letters,” she told the Journal-News during an interview.

Lawson was found guilty of murder on Dec. 13, 1999. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. In addition, Lawson is serving 12 concurrent months in prison for gross abuse of a corpse and five consecutive years for tampering with evidence. He pleaded no contest to those charges before his trial.

The case began on an early spring day when bike riders made the discovery. It turned into a murder mystery that piqued the interest of residents and police. It became even more intriguing as the case took strange twists, turns, stall tactics, plea changes and a three-month run from the law that ended with Lawson’s capture a few days after Thanksgiving 1998 in Carrollton, Ky., where he was spending the holiday with a new girlfriend’s family.

Days before Lawson’s trial began, his mother, Ellen Peck of Middletown, was sentenced to four years in prison for tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice. She and her daughter, Melissa Lawson Botts, transported parts of Durkin’s body to two grave sites in Preble County and Brookville, Ind.

Peck died after her release from prison

On Sept. 1, 1998, Botts provided investigators with information that led to the shallow graves. Butler County Chief Anthony Dwyer (then a lieutenant) and Middletown police detective Frank Hensley (now retired an a bailiff in Franklin Municipal Court) dug up Durkin’s head, legs, feet, arms and hands. The discovery resulted in a warrant being issued for Lawson’s arrest, but he had fled.

Botts was sentenced to five years probation for helping Peck transport the body parts. She was charged with tampering with evidence.

Edwards said she will fight “to her dying breath” to keep Lawson in prison.

“(The murder) took a close knit family that was doing weekend dinners and trips together until now we are all spread out everywhere. For years some of them couldn’t mention Cheryl’s name. They have so much anger and guilt inside of them,” Edwards said, “I fear for this family if he gets out.”

Edwards says Lawson is also a danger to the community. She points to police records that indicate he committed violent crimes before killing Durkin.

“He was a very violent person. This dude has got anger issues. He is a sociopath and what is he going to do when he gets out and gets mad at somebody? Kill them and then try get rid of the body. I fear for any person who gets into his life,” Edwards said. “He hasn’t changed a bit.”

But Lawson says he has changed and has the support of his family.

Journal-News media partner WCPO sent a letter to Lawson in Allen Correctional Institution in Lima earlier this spring, asking if he had any regrets from his past.

Lawson responded with a two-page letter, according to WCPO. In that letter he said, “I first and foremost with the utmost remorse apologize for the act which cost the life of Cheryl Durkin.”

“In being productive while domiciled in prison, I managed to obtain many things, my GED, I am a college graduate in the field of Social Worker, I’ve completed every offered Recovery Service Program & DRC program … and an array of community servic e awards, while at the same time becoming a state licensed minister. So I am definitely not the same person I was when I entered the State of Ohio Correctional Facility,” Lawson wrote in the letter to WCPO.

“As for whether I have apologies, it is with the utmost sincerity that I regret what transpired in 1998, tearing a family apart and shaming another by selfish actions even to the point of shaking a community to look upon at me (as) this deranged killer. Crime was not a condition of me, it was simply a mistake!,” Lawson wrote.

Lawson’s daughter has also started an online petition stating he is a changed person.

“I would love to see him get out for his kids and grandchildren. Everybody deserves a second chance at life,” the petition on Care2 Petitions states.

Lawson’s parole hearing is scheduled for this week, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections.

“This inmate will come before the Board at an institutional panel hearing. Whenever possible, we schedule a majority of the Board members to conduct hearings. Depending on scheduling constraints, there is always a possibility that we may not have a majority of members sitting on the panel. If the board is unable to reach a decision at the panel hearing, the case will be referred to the Central Office Board Review for further consideration and deliberation,” said JoEllen Smith, ODRC spokeswoman. “If the Board would issue a Parole Pending Full Board Determination action, that would then prompt the scheduling of a Full Board (Open) hearing at some future date.

Smith said the results of the hearing will not be released for several weeks.

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