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Brownsville woman found guilty of manslaughter in 2009 stabbing

Tribune-Review
| Thursday, November 6, 2014 4:00 p.m.

A Fayette County woman who was serving up to 40 years in prison for the fatal stabbing of her boyfriend could soon be a free woman, following her conviction on a lesser charge at her retrial.

A jury deliberated for 90 minutes on Thursday before finding Dayna M. McMaster, 37, of Brownsville, guilty of involuntary manslaughter in the June 26, 2009, stabbing of Clarence “Duke” Blair III.

She faces a maximum sentence of 2½ to 5 years in prison when she is sentenced next week, said defense attorney Dianne Zerega of Uniontown. Zerega said McMaster has served much of that time, but she will have to wait to be paroled before she is released from state prison.

“I wanted a not guilty” verdict, said Zerega, who argued her client acted in self-defense. “But I’m pleased. She won’t have to spend the 20 to 40 years in prison she was sentenced to on the third-degree” homicide conviction returned during McMaster’s first trial.

District Attorney Jack Heneks declined comment after the verdict was returned to Senior Judge Gerald R. Solomon. He and Assistant District Attorney Anthony Iannamorelli were seeking another conviction of third-degree homicide.

Prosecutors said McMaster stabbed Blair, a tree-trimmer, in the heart while they were arguing on a gravel road near Cardale Elementary School in Redstone. Earlier in the evening, they had smoked crack cocaine.

McMaster drove Blair to Uniontown Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

A jury in 2010 convicted McMaster of third-degree murder and she was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison.

She was granted a retrial in August 2013, when a panel of state Superior Court judges found her attorney did not call witnesses whose testimony might have bolstered her allegations of domestic abuse.

Mary Catherine Burke, a Pittsburgh psychologist called by the defense, on Thursday testified McMaster suffered from battered person syndrome. She said McMaster was in fear for her life because Blair threatened to kill her and commit suicide before he took her to the remote location at a gas well site.

“Her choices were to kill Mr. Blair or be killed by Mr. Blair,” Burke testified.

McMaster on Wednesday testified she and Blair traded verbal and physical abuse during their five-year relationship. She testified Blair knocked out one of her front teeth, gave her black eyes and broke her nose.

She said she “used her mouth” to hurt Blair and once beat him with an iron.

“When it was good, it was beautiful,” McMaster said, describing the pair’s relationship.

“I loved him from the beginning,” McMaster testified. “I still do. You just can’t stop loving somebody.”

She testified she planned to use the knife to “poke” Blair in the arm if he started to beat her, but she unintentionally stabbed him in the chest as he strangled her.

“I wanted his hands off my throat,” McMaster testified. “But I didn’t want this to happen.”

Iannamorelli told jurors McMaster killed Blair because she was angry he sold her daughter’s cellphone for money to buy crack cocaine. She used battered person syndrome to cover up an intentional killing, he said.

“It’s an excuse to say, this is my side of the story, after the other individual is dead because of my actions, so give me a free pass,” Iannamorelli said in a closing argument. “That pass is not warranted. This defense of self-defense holds no water.”

Blair’s mother, Sharon Blair, 72, of Cardale, said the trial forced her to relive her son’s death. Blair’s daughter, Molly Keffer, 21, of Brownsville, said the conviction on involuntary manslaughter is “not enough.”

Keffer said the lengthier sentence of 20 to 40 years from the first conviction was too lenient, “but that was better than what it is now.”

Clarence Blair, whose family carried his cremated remains to the courtroom daily for the four-day trial, did not have a voice in McMaster’s fate, said his brother, Jeffrey Blair, 49, of Uniontown.

“All we have is remains,” said Jeffrey Blair. “Our pain doesn’t stop. This is just like a slap in the face.”

McMaster’s family embraced Zerega in the hallway outside the courtroom. They declined to comment.

Solomon ordered McMaster held at the county prison until she is sentenced next week. He did not immediately set a hearing date.

Liz Zemba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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