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Death sentence upheld
August 05, 2005, 12:00 AM By Michelle Durand
A mentally questionable Belmont man convicted of brutally murdering two teenage boys two decades ago will remain on death row, the state's high court ruled yesterday.

John Scott Dunkle, 41, is facing death in the murders of John Davies, 15, in 1981 and Lance Turner, 12, in 1985. In his latest unsuccessful stab at reversal, Dunkle argued many reasons why his conviction was unlawful, including multiple problems with the pre-trial competency hearings in which a jury found him able to participate in a capital trial.

In its ruling issued Thursday, the California State Supreme Court methodically denied every argument made in Dunkle's appeal and upheld the 1990 death sentence.

Questions remain, though, whether Dunkle will ever receive lethal injection for the pair of murders which shocked the Peninsula community, dragged through local courts and inspired both a true-crime book and movie.

At the end of 2004, the state's high court began weighing how to define retardation. The U.S. Supreme Court banned executions of retarded inmates three years ago but never gave states guidelines. California was left to work out how the ruling applies to inmates like Dunkle who have substantially low IQs or other mental defects. The state Legislature banned executions of the mentally insane and incompetent but also did not set a specific IQ level. In other states, retardation is generally defined at 70 or below.

The case of a Los Angeles gang member condemned for the 1982 killing of two rivals was heard in December and was thought to be a litmus case for dozens of other inmates deemed retarded on death row. In February, the court ordered the defendant in that case reviewed for mental competency but it remains unclear how its outcome may affect cases like that of Dunkle.

Dunkle's mental condition was a key factor in Thursday's unsuccessful appeal although it hinged on competency rather than retardation or sanity.

Dunkle, then 21, was arrested after Turner's body was found fatally stabbed 23 times at Water Dog Lake in October 1984. During the investigation, police learned Dunkle also killed Davies in November 1981. The murder of Sean Dannehl, 12, in Sacramento County was added to the tally after his trial for the two Belmont cases.

Former San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Judith Whitmer Kozloski declined to find Dunkle incompetent for trial and the jury convicted him on two counts of first-degree murder Dec. 6, 1989. The following February, the jury confirmed a death sentence. An extra life sentence was added after Dunkle pleaded guilty to fatally stabbing Dannehl.

Dunkle's mental state has been in question since nearly day one despite Whitmer Kozloski's refusal to suspend criminal proceedings. During the trial, District Attorney Jim Fox acknowledged Dunkle did not even meet average mental capacity, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe who prosecuted the case.

However, a slew of doctors, at times contradictory, presented their findings to a jury which eventually deemed him capable of aiding in his own defense. Many of the doctors for both sides acknowledged varied types of mental disorders and jurors learned that Dunkle thought he had a computer in his head and a telephone in his shoulder.

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