John Yancey Schmitt
||This article's introduction may be too long for the overall article length. (March 2009)|
John Yancey Schmitt, was an inmate executed by lethal injection at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia on November 9, 2006. Schmitt was found guilty of the 1999 murder of Earl Shelton Dunning, 39. Schmitt, who was 25-years old when he committed the capital crime, was sentenced to death on February 18, 2000.
Shortly after 1:00 p.m. on February 17, 1999, Schmitt entered the NationsBank in Bon Air, Virginia wearing dark sunglasses and a bulky jacket. Schmitt kept his head lowered and appeared to scan the interior of the bank. Bank manager Sara Parker-Orr testified that she was “nervous” about Schmitt because he was wearing sunglasses inside the bank on a “really cloudy day.”
After Schmitt went inside the bank, Earl Dunning, the bank’s new security guard, entered the bank and walked across the lobby to stand at the end of the teller line in which customers were waiting. Parker-Orr watched Schmitt leave the line he was currently in and walk toward Dunning. When Schmitt was within “a foot or so” of Dunning, Parker-Orr heard two gunshots and then heard someone scream, “Get down, get down.”
Schmitt next approached Parker-Orr's teller window and banged on the counter yelling, “Money, give me money,” and “If I don't get money, I'm going to kill everybody.” Parker-Orr opened her cash drawer and threw money into a black plastic bag that Schmitt was holding. Schmitt continued to bang on the counter demanding “more money.” He said that he would give the tellers ten seconds to give him more money, and began counting backward from the number ten.
By the time Schmitt reached nine, teller Marlene Austin was throwing money in the bag as well. Parker-Orr also gave Schmitt money from a third teller's drawer. When she told Schmitt that she had no more money to give him, he left the bank.
None of the witnesses who testified at trial actually saw who shot Dunning and the shooting was not recorded by the bank's security camera system. The bank's security camera system, however, did record photographs of Schmitt approaching the end of the teller counter and standing at a teller window holding a bag and pointing a gun. Parker-Orr, Austin, and another teller, Kelli Konstaitis, all identified a photograph of Schmitt recorded by the bank's security camera system as depicting the man who robbed the bank that day.
After Schmitt left the bank witnesses telephoned the 9-1-1 emergency response number and attended to Dunning, who was lying on the floor. By the time emergency medical personnel arrived Dunning was dead. An autopsy revealed that Dunning was killed as a result of a .45-caliber bullet entering the right side of his chest causing significant injuries to the aorta and exiting from the right side of his back. Witnesses in the bank testified that they did not touch or see anyone else touch Dunning's gun or its holster; the gun was found in its holster, closed and snapped.
After the murder and robbery Schmitt registered at a Williamsburg hotel the same day under the name “R. Napier” paying cash for a three-day stay at the hotel. The hotel desk clerk testified that Schmitt asked for directions to the local shopping areas, and that when Schmitt later returned to the hotel, his hair was a different color.
Captain Karl S. Leonard of the Chesterfield County Police Department identified Schmitt after reviewing the photographs taken by the bank's security camera system. On February 19 Leonard learned where Schmitt was staying in Williamsburg. The James City County Tactical Team surrounded Schmitt's hotel room, and a crisis negotiator, Lieutenant Diane M. Clarcq of the James City County Police Department, attempted to persuade Schmitt to surrender. About 10:30 a.m. the following morning Schmitt surrendered and was taken into police custody.
Leonard obtained a search warrant for Schmitt's hotel room where a satchel, a .45-caliber handgun, a box of shotgun shells, a black leather jacket, and a variety of newly purchased clothing items were seized. John H. Willmer, a firearms and tool mark examiner employed by the Virginia Division of Forensic Science, testified that he examined the handgun found in Schmitt's hotel room and the cartridge casings and bullets found in the bank. Wilmer testified that the cartridge casings and bullets had been fired from the handgun, and concluded that the pattern of gunpowder residue found on Dunning's clothing indicated that when he was shot the distance between him and the firearm muzzle was between 12 and 36 inches. Inside the satchel was $27,091 in cash, most of which still bore “bank bands” identifying the money as coming from the Bon Air branch of NationsBank.
Schmitt was tried in Chesterfield County. During the penalty phase of the trial the jury learned that Schmitt, armed with a sawed off shotgun and accompanied by another man, had robbed $65,000 from the very same bank a month before Schmitt had murdered Dunning. After deliberating for nine hours the jury found the presence of the future dangerousness aggravator, and the court sentenced Schmitt to death. Governor Timothy M. Kaine rejected Schmitt’s request for clemency.
Ironically, Dunning’s employment at the bank was a direct result of Schmitt’s January robbery. Dunning had been on the job for less than a month having just retired from the U.S. Army after over 20 years of military service.
Schmitt's first NationsBank robbery
Clifford Sauer was a roofer who had previously employed Schmitt. After the January 19, 1990 robbery, Schmitt contacted Sauer for his assistance in purchasing a car. Sauer brokered the deal for the car and received a fee from Schmitt for his assistance. Sauer did not then know that Schmitt had robbed a bank but he was suspicious of Schmitt's spending habits and after some prodding Schmitt told Sauer that he had robbed a bank. Schmitt then tried to purchase a gun from Sauer and Sauer refused. He asked Sauer if he wanted to drive for another bank robbery and Sauer declined. Schmitt then told Sauer that if “you breathe one word of this to anyone *** I'm going to have to kill you or my friends will have to kill you.”
On January 30 Schmitt was arrested for obstruction of justice related to a hotel disturbance in which he was involved. Schmitt told police that his name was James Comer. A few hours later Sauer received a telephone call from an employee of the Henrico County Jail asking whether he knew James Comer. Sauer responded in the affirmative. The next voice Sauer heard was that of Schmitt who told Sauer to contact Kenny Lockner, collect some money, and take it to the Henrico County Jail to bail out James Comer. After the bail was provided Schmitt was released from custody. Sauer did not realize that he was actually posting bail for Schmitt instead of Comer until he saw Schmitt walk out of the jail after the bail had been paid.
On February 5 Detective William George and other officers arrived at Sauer's residence in the City of Richmond, Virginia. George told Sauer that they were looking for Schmitt in connection with a bank robbery. Sauer gave the officers permission to search his home and answered their questions. The search lasted only about 15 minutes but before leaving, George left Sauer with his card and requested permission to interview Sauer at a later date.
On February 7 George and Detective Easton conducted a one-hour long interview with Sauer in his home, a large portion of which was taped and transcribed. Sauer volunteered information regarding: Schmitt's purchase of the car; his efforts to recruit Sauer as a driver; his attempt to purchase Sauer's gun; his plans to kill Joanna Murphy, one of Schmitt's friends; and individuals who might lead police to Schmitt.
Shortly after Dunning’s murder Sauer told George he had seen news of the murder and believed that Schmitt was the perpetrator. George went to Sauer's house whereupon Sauer provided him with information that led to Schmitt's girlfriend and eventually led to locating Schmitt in Williamsburg.
Sometime shortly before March 12 Sauer told George that Schmitt had been calling him from jail. George asked Sauer to tape any future telephone calls from Schmitt and Sauer agreed.
George then talked with Chief Deputy Commonwealth Attorney, Warren Von Schuch, who told George that Sauer could record calls but could not ask questions. Von Schuch instructed George to provide Sauer with a tape recorder for Sauer's phone. Later that day George delivered the recording device to Sauer telling him the only question left unanswered was the origin of the handgun used in the second robbery. On March 12 Schmitt called Sauer from jail. During their conversation Sauer elicited from Schmitt information about the gun, the robbery, and the murder.
Between Christmas and New Years, Von Schuch provided Schmitt’s counsel with a transcript of the March 12 Schmitt/Sauer tape-recorded conversation. Therein Schmitt admitted robbing the bank and shooting Dunning insisting that his gun discharged accidentally during the course of a struggle. Schmitt also chuckled under his breath when he explained how Dunning’s “eyes got real big” when he pointed the gun at him.
At trial the prosecution introduced the Schmitt/Sauer tape during the sentencing phase, and while counsel objected that it constituted a violation of Schmitt's Fifth Amendment and Sixth Amendment rights because, “Sauer is clearly acting at the behest of *** and as an agent of the police,” the trial court overruled Schmitt's motion without explaining the basis for its ruling and allowed the tape to be played to the jury and Sauer to testify on behalf of the prosecution.
- Michelangelo Delfino and Mary E. Day, Death Penalty USA 2005 -2006, (2008), 344-349.
- Schmitt v. Commonwealth (2001) 547 S.E.2d 186.