A jury found a Del City father guilty Friday of child neglect in a fire that killed his three young children inside a locked motor home.
Christopher Lee Dunham, 26, was found guilty of three counts of felony child neglect and three drug-related offenses arising from the Jan. 4, 2011, fire that killed Christopher L. Dunham Jr., 4; Crystal Ann Dunham, 3; and Kailey Mae Dunham, 1.
The jury recommended an 18-year sentence on each of the child neglect counts and 10 years on a felony drug charge. Sentencing is set for June 26.
Stephanie Dunham, the children's mother, avoided a trial by pleading no contest to neglect and drug charges and will be sentenced July 11. She admitted being in a nearby house when the fire started and told a fire inspector the door to the RV was locked from the outside.
Jurors deliberated for more than six hours over two days before reaching a verdict. They declined to speak with reporters as they left the Oklahoma County courtroom of District Judge Jerry D. Bass.
Prosecutors admitted to a case of nerves when the jury went home Thursday night after deliberating for five hours. But it turned out jurors were hung up on sentencing options and not guilt or innocence, prosecutors said.
“We're happy that they saw that the father was equally responsible for this tragic accident,” said Assistant District Attorney SuAnne Carlson, who prosecuted Dunham, along with Assistant District Attorney Pamela Stillings.
Dunham sat quietly as the verdicts were read and showed no emotion. He declined to answer questions from reporters as he was led away in handcuffs.
“I still believe my client to be innocent of child neglect but greatly respect the jury's decision,” defense attorney Robert Sisson said. “I believe Judge Bass to be a merciful judge.”
The judge will decide whether Dunham serves his terms consecutively or concurrently. He will have to serve 85 percent of his sentence on the neglect charges and 50 percent of his sentence on the felony drug charge before he will be eligible for parole.
Sisson said his client turned down a plea deal from prosecutors before the trial to serve 25 years in prison and 10 years of probation.
About the testimony
Sisson portrayed Dunham throughout the weeklong trial as a loving, caring father who couldn't possibly have been expected to know what his wife was doing when he was working.
“What he knew is his wife took good care of his kids,” Sisson said in his closing argument.
Prosecutors, though, alleged Dunham left the children in their mother's care with knowledge of her drug use and bi-polar disorder. He acknowledged changing the lock on the RV door and locking the children inside on occasion to “get away for a few minutes.”
A neighbor testified this week that she had smoked marijuana with the couple and told Christopher Dunham that his wife treated the children too roughly. Dunham, she told the court, assured her he would take care of it.
A Del City police detective testified that the same neighbor told him the couple often locked their oldest son in the motor home because he was rambunctious.
A Department of Human Services worker testified the couple lied to her about where they lived. She said they told her they lived in the defendant's mother's home, not in the RV parked in the backyard.
Experts for both sides testified the cause of the fire was undetermined and agreed that a space heater played a significant role. What the prosecution and defense could not agree on was how the fire started.
The vehicle, which had no running water and was powered by extension cords from the house, was filled with clutter, Del City Fire Department officials testified.
A propane torch was found next to the heater in the area of origin, and the prosecution alleged that it was used to smoke methamphetamine. Several glass pipes used to smoke marijuana and meth were found near the children's sleeping quarters, along with drug residue.
Prosecutors said the trial was emotional and difficult given the subject matter. The jury saw photos of the children's bodies inside the burned-out RV and listened to graphic testimony from firefighters and a pathologist from the state medical examiner's office.
“Children are blessings from God,” Stillings said. “But it is Oklahoma law that you have to take care of those children, or we're going to hold you responsible.”
Stephanie Dunham was four months pregnant when the fire occurred. That child is living in a foster home and is expected to be adopted, prosecutors said. They also revealed during the trial that the Dunhams are still married and Stephanie Dunham now is expecting the couple's fifth child.