‘Now or never’

Dominique McDonald still recalls trips as a toddler to Toys R Us, where he and an older brother pestered their father into purchasing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandise.

Those are the last memories McDonald, now a sophomore point guard at Minot State University, has of his father as a free man. Dewitt McDonald Jr. was convicted of the June 1994 murder of Vivian Johnson in Sandusky, Ohio, and has served a life sentence in prison since 1995.

Johnson, 36, was sitting in a car outside her home when a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting struck her in the neck. She was not the intended target of the attack, according to court documents.

Dewitt McDonald’s family maintains his innocence, claiming that the now 49-year-old wasn’t present at the scene of the shooting. After several attempts to get a retrial, including two habeus corpus proceedings, the family’s funds are sapped from legal fees. Dominique, his brother Dewitt McDonald III and their mother Jacqueline White – the elder McDonald’s ex-wife – started a crowdfunding website (gofundme.com/3tl3g4) in August to help raise money for legal fees and to pay a private investigator to find new evidence that may bolster Dewitt McDonald Jr.’s case.

“We’re getting to a point where this is the last avenue,” Dewitt III said. “It’s now or never.”

Complex case

According to a 2010 article in the Sandusky Register, Krista Harris – a key witness for the prosecution in the murder case – initially provided McDonald an alibi by testifying that she was with him the night Johnson was killed, supporting his story that they spent the night together. But Harris changed her testimony, stating in an affidavit that she was forced into a “nonconsensual sexual relationship” by Erie County Prosecutor Kevin Baxter, who “threatened to file criminal charges against her to obtain her testimony against (McDonald).”

Baxter denied these allegations in a phone interview with The Minot Daily News and said there is much more evidence beyond Harris’ testimony linking McDonald to the murder.

In a case summary provided by the Ohio Court of Appeals, McDonald and companions Shawn Caston and Daryl Turner were at a Sandusky bar when an argument ensued with Jerome Caffey. A witness later reported overhearing McDonald tell Caston that he “wouldn’t waste his time on one of them. He’d cap one of them,” referring to Caffey.

Another witness reported seeing McDonald, Caston and Turner together at a Shell gas station a short distance from Caffey’s house a few minutes before the shooting. Vivian Johnson was sitting in her car on the street outside Caffey’s house when the stray bullet struck her. She died two days later.

Two families ruined

The way Jacqueline White sees it, two families were victimized in this case. Johnson was a mother of four.

“That woman lost her life, but there are more victims in this case,” White said. “My kids, they were robbed. We were truly victimized.”

White believes her ex-husband was having an affair with Krista Harris and was with her during the shooting.

“Even though he was wrong, I just knew that he was not guilty of murder,” White said. “But he was guilty of marital indiscretion.”

McDonald’s family enlisted the help of Ohio-based licensed private investigator Martin Yant, who specializes in wrongful convictions. Yant is the author of the 1991 book “Presumed Guilty: When Innocent People are Wrongly Convicted.” He helped 16 people get released from convictions in the past 22 years, and said he believes McDonald “is very likely innocent.”

Yant said he first worked on McDonald’s case in 2008 and recently began searching for more evidence to strengthen an appeal for a new trial.

“What I’m trying to do is find witnesses who really weren’t known before,” Yant said. “That’s what I’m trying to pursue now, is to have something the court would consider new. You put that together with some of the other evidence and have the court take a fresh look at that.”

Despite the years of appeals from McDonald, Baxter said he is “absolutely” convinced the right man is in prison.

“I’d tell you that if I didn’t (think he was guilty),” Baxter said. “I’ve done that in some other cases; if someone else has something I don’t think they did, I’d be honest.

“As prosecutors, I think that’s what we are or should be. I do and should find more people not guilty than defense attorneys do every year. We have to decide what to prosecute.”

Path to Minot State

Dominique was two years old when his father was convicted. When he was in third grade, White moved her family from her children’s birthplace – Columbus, Ohio – to Raleigh, N.C. Seeking a fresh start, White filed for divorce around the same time.

“Our marriage was not a perfect marriage,” she said. “We had some differences in our relationship. When I moved to North Carolina, I wanted to sever ties but I wanted to keep standing by him because I knew he was innocent.”

Dominique, now 21, quickly got involved with the AAU basketball circuit. White noticed her son became jealous when he saw teammates with both parents attending their games.

“I was bitter for the longest time just because of how bad he seemed like he wanted to be out with me when I talked to him,” Dominique said. “He really seemed like he wanted to be there. You could just tell from conversation every day. I can tell he loved me so much.”

Said Dewitt III: “People don’t grow up with dads, but it’s different because some people’s dads don’t wanna be there. When you have a father that actually wants to be there and he can’t be there, that’s what tears you down the most inside.”

The brothers are quick to point out that their single mother, a senior administrative assistant in the public health and government services industry, gave them every opportunity to succeed.

Dewitt III, 24, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla. He moved to Minot after Dominique committed to play for the Beavers, and currently works in data processing for Cognizant Technology Solutions Corporation while also serving as a shift manager at Pizza Hut. He works 16 hours a day, five days a week and said he plans to contribute some money to his father’s cause.

Dominique, who averaged 9.6 points and a team-high 3.3 assists per game last season, majors in management information systems.

“There’s not a lot of people where we’re from back in Columbus, Ohio, doing what we’re doing – that have their bachelor’s degree or are playing college basketball,” Dewitt III said. “Not a lot of people leave Columbus. Once you’re there, you’re there.”

White said she kept her children so occupied they had little time to sulk about having a father behind bars.

“They haven’t lived like they haven’t had their father because I kept them so busy,” White said. “When they got out of school, it was always athletics. If they didn’t play football, they played basketball. They were always at the boys club or the YMCA doing something.”

Dominique and Dewitt III said their father calls them every day, and they try to visit him four or five times each summer at Ross Correctional Institution in Chilicothe, Ohio. They said he’s as active in their lives as he can be, routinely doling out advice with a positive outlook.

Dominique said one day he’d like to show his father the type of man, and basketball player, that he’s become.

“That’s really a lot of my motivation in school,” he said. “I want my father to see me play basketball.”

Daniel Allar covers Minot State University athletics. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar_MDN.