Work on a plea agreement to shield a Fort Wayne man charged with the brutal 2016 slayings of four people – one, his unborn child – and an attack on another from execution and keep him behind bars began weeks ago, his lawyer said Thursday.
Michelle Kraus said she, defense attorney Robert Gevers and Allen County prosecutors “had been working for the past few weeks” on the deal for Marcus Dansby, 23, to plead guilty but mentally ill to four counts of murder, one count of attempted murder and a sentencing enhancement for using a gun to commit the crimes.
He did that Thursday, admitting he killed Consuela Arrington, 37, Traeven Harris, 18, Dajahiona Arrington, 18, and the 37-week-old fetus she was carrying inside a home on Holton Avenue on Sept. 11, 2016. Trinity Hairston, then 14, was shot and stabbed but survived.
Prosecutors agreed to dismiss the death penalty. Dansby, 20 at the time of the killings, faces up to 320 years – and at least 205 years – in prison when he is sentenced in July.
“It wasn't unexpected,” Kraus said of the guilty pleas.
But for some, it was.
Juanita Arrington Collins has helped take care of Trinity, her cousin, since the attack. She cried when she learned about the pleas from a reporter.
“Thank you, Jesus,” she said. “We can put this behind us. We've just been waiting so long.”
Police were called around 4 a.m. to a grisly scene almost three years ago at 3006 Holton Ave. Emergency dispatchers answered a 911 call a few minutes earlier, hearing “a struggle and then gunshots and the call went dead,” investigators said.
When police arrived, they found Dansby “covered in blood and ... hysterical,” Fort Wayne Police Detective Brian Martin wrote in a probable cause affidavit. Dansby had a large knife with a broken handle in his pants pocket, Martin said, and police later found a gun covered in blood at the home.
Inside, Consuela Arrington was dead from “sharp force trauma and gunshot wounds,” and Harris and Dajahiona Arrington were shot to death, according to the affidavit.
“I am still hearing gunshots,” Dansby told Martin in an interview 21/2hours after police were called. “Did anyone survive?”
Dansby was formally charged three days later, and Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards filed paperwork in January 2017 to seek the death penalty.
What followed was a complex legal drama that included debates over constitutional protections for defendants who are under age 21 at the time of their crimes and whether the state's death penalty law should be thrown out. It saw a defense attorney removed from the case amid questions about his caseload and qualifications and two proposed appeals to the Indiana Supreme Court about whether the judge acted properly.
Kraus and Gevers – public defenders assigned to the case after lawyer Nikos Nakos was removed in January – unsuccessfully argued execution should be prohibited for defendants younger than 21. They hired a Temple University psychology professor who testified here in December human brains continue to mature until at least age 22, and people younger than that can have trouble controlling their actions and thinking about potential consequences.
Robert Dunham, an expert on capital punishment who runs the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center, complimented Dansby's lawyers and said their work made things more difficult for prosecutors. It likely helped avoid a trial, he said.
The Dansby case highlights a trend among capital murder cases around the country, where more are ending with pleas and fewer proceed to trial, Dunham said.
“Typically, there will be some type of plea agreement,” he said. “The (Dansby) plea deal is news, and it's important, but the outcome is not out of the norm.”
Richards said she couldn't comment until after Dansby is sentenced.
Damion Arrington, Consuela Arrington's brother, called the resolution to the case bittersweet. He was asleep downstairs at the Holton Avenue home in 2016 and told police he awoke to gunfire “and what sounded like someone running around on the ground floor.”
Damion Arrington said he saw Dansby putting “a sheet or something” over his dead or dying sister. Trinity, now 17, lives with him, undergoes physical therapy and sees a counselor.
“(She's) doing pretty good,” he said. “If you were to look at her now, you wouldn't be able to tell she went through anything. She's my miracle.”
Dansby's pleas ensure he'll never hurt another family, Damion Arrington said.
“I wouldn't want this type of pain or burden on anyone else,” he said.
Timeline of events
Sept. 11, 2016: Traeven Harris, 18, Consuela Arrington, 37, Dajahiona Arrington, 18, and the fetus she is carrying are killed in a home at 3006 Holton Ave. Trinity Hairston, 14, is shot and stabbed but survives. Marcus Dansby, then 20, is arrested at the scene and charged with three counts of murder and one count of attempted murder.
Sept. 14, 2016: Dansby is charged with a fourth murder count in the slaying of the fetus.
Jan. 5, 2017: Prosecutors file paperwork to seek the death penalty.
March 2017: Defense attorney Nikos Nakos says DNA tests revealed Dansby was the father of the fetus.
Jan. 26, 2018: Nakos is removed by an Allen County judge from the case amid concerns about the lawyer's caseload and experience handling capital cases. Public defenders Michelle Kraus and Robert Gevers say they'll challenge the decision, but a proposed appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court is not pursued.
May 25, 2018: Dansby's lawyers ask a judge to have jurors from outside Allen County hear the case, arguing “public outrage” about the crimes make it impossible for him to receive a fair trial with local jurors. The request is granted, and Marion County jurors are slated to hear the case.
October 2018: Kraus and Gevers ask Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull to throw out the state's death penalty statute and exclude execution as potential punishment for Dansby because of his age – 20 – at the time of the killing. Both requests are later rejected by the judge.
Feb. 21, 2019: Gull approves a delay in Dansby's trial, which had been scheduled for April. The trial is pushed back to October and is expected to last a month.
March 2019: Defense attorneys file paperwork asking the judge to approve asking the state Supreme Court whether Gull erred when she denied the request to exclude the death penalty. Gull does not sign off on seeking the high court's opinion, and the trial remains set for Oct. 1.
Thursday: Dansby pleads guilty but mentally ill to four charges of murder, one count of attempted murder and a sentencing enhancement for using a gun to commit the crimes. A two-day sentencing hearing is scheduled July 25.