Updated: Judge declares mistrial in Seyoum murder case

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Updated: Judge declares mistrial in Seyoum murder case
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4:44 p.m. update:

Alexandria Circuit Court Judge Nolan B. Dawkins declared a mistrial Thursday in the Dawit Seyoum murder trial, after jurors reported that they could not reach a verdict.

After more than two and a half days of deliberation, the jury sent two notes to Judge Nolan B. Dawkins saying members were “hopelessly deadlocked” and unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

Seyoum is accused of first degree murder and confessed to killing Carolyn Cross, deputy director of the D.C. Department of Corrections on September 7, 2014 in her Seminary Towers apartment on Kenmore Avenue.

Commonwealth attorneys would not comment on the trial but are expected to regroup and select a new trial date.

Original story:

By Susan Hale Thomas (File photo)

After two days of deliberations, a jury had not yet reached a verdict Wednesday as to the fate of Dawit Seyoum, accused of first degree murder in the killing of D.C. Department of Corrections deputy director Carolyn Cross in September 2014.

Over the course of the trial, the basic facts of the case were not at issue — Seyoum confessed to the crime shortly after his arrest. Instead, the case has centered around whether the defendant was insane at the time of the crime.

Cross and Seyoum were strangers but lived in adjacent apartment buildings at Seminary Towers on Kenmore Avenue.

Cross’ daughter, Clarissa Davis, found her in Cross’ apartment after she was unable to reach her mother by phone — she was scheduled to drive her to the airport.

But Seyoum had sneaked into Cross’ apartment and struck her 15 times with a large wrench. Four blows hit her skull. Seyoum put a plastic bag over Cross’ head and secured it with duct tape. He then strangled her, breaking her larynx.

According to psychiatrists testifying for the defense team, Seyoum fled the scene when Cross’ phone received a text message from Davis displaying the word “Mom.”

Hours later, Seyoum placed a 911 call from his own apartment. He had tried unsuccessfully to kill himself, cutting open his arms in his bathroom. Written in blood on the shower wall was, “I was the dirty one.”

Prosecutors argued that Seyoum’s ability to formulate and carry out a plan to kill Cross was a sign of his sanity, but the defense said he suffered from untreated schizophrenia and his actions were in response to delusions.

Family members and former educators said Seyoum was a promising young student, despite enduring a number of childhood traumas, including seeing the capture and deportation of his father at the start of a war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, where he was born.

“He challenged himself with AP classes and assimilated well into a foreign environment,” said Lynette McCracken, a counselor at Yorktown High School in Arlington.

With dreams of becoming a doctor, he enrolled at Old Dominion University, where he shared a room with his cousin, Kale Daniel. Daniel said Seyoum seemed to have a successful freshman year, and loaned his cousin his car for the summer.

But at the end of summer break, Seyoum was withdrawn, unkempt and had no sense of time, Daniel said. He also had no idea where his cousin’s car was.

“He couldn’t focus on education or work,” Daniel told the court. “Seyoum knew something wasn’t right.”

In October 2008, Daniel sought help for his cousin at ODU’s student health center. Over several months, Seyoum was seen by several doctors, all of whom described Seyoum as depressed, anxious, withdrawn, detached and exhibiting a flat affect — all early signs of schizophrenia. Seyoum was referred to Dr. Edwin Gatewood, a psychiatrist in Norfolk in December of that year.

“He felt a dog was trying to talk with him,” Gatewood said.

Seyoum was prescribed Prozac, but Daniel said Seyoum didn’t like the way the medication made him feel so he stopped taking it. Seyoum dropped out of school and went back home to live with his parents. Seyoum took jobs at Starbucks and CVS but reportedly felt his co-workers controlled his thoughts and found working with others increasingly stressful.

During the trial, Seyoum sat motionless with his head down and his eyes closed. His only movement over the course of the trial was when his mother testified and began to cry. Seyoum, with his eyes closed, reached up to wipe his nose.

Asked if she thought her son was mentally ill, Seyoum’s mother said, “In Ethiopia, the mentally ill are on the streets and dirty.”

The last time Daniel saw his cousin, just a month before the murder, Seyoum said he wanted to see a doctor but, with no job or health insurance, he didn’t have the means.

The Thursday before Cross’ murder, Seyoum had a fight with his mother. His mother said it was nothing, but Seyoum told detectives he felt rejected.

On Friday night, Seyoum was pacing outside the Southern Towers apartments when he told psychiatrists he felt someone was staring at him and spotted Cross on her balcony smoking a cigarette. He saw her flick her cigarette butt off the balcony and said he felt the ground move and negative vibrations run through his body.

He said he believed Cross was sending him messages and trying to intimidate him. He told Dr. Michael Hendricks he wanted to get back at Cross, so he committed Saturday to making that happen.

On Saturday, Seyoum took a bus to Seven Corners and Bailey’s Crossroads where he sold his father’s guitar for $230 and bought duct tape, wrench, pepper spray, box cutter, white lingerie, a bottle of Johnnie Walker and a key fob to Cross’ building. Later in the afternoon, Seyoum drank the scotch  and early Sunday morning made his way into Cross’ building.

Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Cathryn Evans argued Seyoum’s ability to organize a plan spoke volumes as to his sanity.

“What proves his guilt, proves his sanity,” Evans said. “The afternoon Seyoum was interviewed by the detectives, he confessed and said, ‘I am the responsible one. If it’s a lifetime in prison or the death penalty, I’ll take it.’”

But defense attorney Jasmin Mize said Seyoum was actively psychotic at the time of event and Seyoum told experts he felt “propelled’ to execute his plan and “it felt right.” Dr. Michael Hendricks and Dr. Anita Boss both testified that Seyoum’s plan was driven by mental illness and he could not resist the compulsion to carry out the attack.

“This wasn’t a plan, it was a series of events based on things that weren’t real,” Mize told the jury.

If found guilty, Seyoum faces life in prison.

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