Note: This story was last updated at 11:45 p.m.
An Anderson County judge on Tuesday denied a motion to reduce the $1 million bond for Rebecca Dishman, and a prosecutor said the state could consider the death penalty in the “especially heinous” murder.
Dishman, 22, is one of two defendants charged with murder, sex crimes, kidnapping, and abuse of a corpse in a series of gruesome crimes allegedly committed against Jennifer Gail Paxton, 36, of Knoxville, in a home in east Oak Ridge sometime between December and August.
Dishman had a hearing in Anderson County General Sessions Court in Oak Ridge on Tuesday afternoon. She was represented by defense attorney Paul Sexton.
Sexton said Dishman waived her right to be in court, and she did not appear to hear the discussion of her case. On Dishman’s behalf, Sexton asked Anderson County General Sessions Court Judge Roger Miller to reduce her bond.
“She’s a woman of limited means,” Sexton said, and there is no way she can afford to be released on bond.
Under the law, Dishman is entitled to a reasonable bond, Sexton said.
He said it could be a long time before the case is concluded, and Dishman could serve her sentence before she is tried or convicted.
But objecting to the motion to reduce bond, Brian Gilliam, assistant district attorney general in the Seventh Judicial District in Anderson County, cited several factors weighing against the proposed bond reduction, including the need to protect the public and the nature of the charges.
The charges include first-degree murder, Gilliam said, and this was an especially heinous murder.
First-degree murder has a minimum sentence of life in prison, and none of the charges against Dishman can be served through probation, Gilliam said.
Also, the state could consider the death penalty in this case, although that decision has not been made yet.
It qualifies, Gilliam told Judge Miller, but “I don’t make those decisions.”
In capital cases, there is no bond, Gilliam told the judge.
Miller denied the motion to reduce the $1 million bond for Dishman.
Her co-defendant, Sean Finnegan, 52, has the same bond, and he and Dishman have new court dates set for October 27.
Finnegan also had a court appearance scheduled for Tuesday, but it was reset.
On Monday, Oak Ridge Today asked Dave Clark, district attorney general in the Seventh Judicial District, about the possibility of the death penalty in this case. Clark said that decision is based on meeting one or more legal grounds for seeking the death penalty, and it requires a careful examination of the case and studied reflection. Making that decision also requires meetings with the victim’s family to discuss the 28-year average in Tennessee for imposing the death penalty and the tortuous process of having the execution scheduled multiple times before it is actually administered, Clark said.
“Not every family wants or is prepared for that process,” the DA said. “All of that will have to be delayed until the investigation is complete.”
Miller said this will not be a quick case. Sometimes, the wheels of justice turn slowly, the judge said.
Finnegan allegedly tortured, raped, and strangled Paxton, and her body was allegedly cut and broken before being stuffed into a freezer in a home on East Fairview Road, off Florida Avenue.
Finnegan has been charged with five felonies after the Oak Ridge Police Department responded to a homicide report at the East Fairview Road home on Wednesday night, August 5, and found Paxton’s body during a search of the home early Thursday, August 6. The five felony charges against Finnegan are first-degree murder, aggravated rape, aggravated kidnapping, abuse of a corpse, and tampering with evidence.
Dishman has also been charged with five felonies: first-degree murder, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated kidnapping, abuse of a corpse, and tampering with evidence.
Arrest warrants filed for Finnegan and Dishman said they lured Paxton to the home on East Fairview Road with the promise of a place to stay.
But once at the home, Paxton became the victim of a series of gruesome crimes, according to the warrants, which were filed by Oak Ridge Police Department Sergeant Marvell Moore.
Paxton was chained to a bed and shackled with a dog collar, said the warrants, which were filed in Anderson County General Sessions Court in Oak Ridge. She was struck on the head and an arm with a baseball bat so she wouldn’t resist or try to escape the attacks, and her arms were bound with zip ties, the warrants said.
Once she was incapacitated, Finnegan and Dishman repeatedly raped her before strangling her, causing her to die, the warrants said.
Paxton was deprived of food and medical care, the warrants said.
After she was killed, Finnegan and Dishman cut off body parts and broke ligaments and bones in order to put her body into a stand-up freezer, the warrants said. Moore called the mistreatment of the corpse “shocking and offensive.”
When Finnegan knew there would be an investigation, he moved the frozen decomposing body from the freezer and hid it under his bed, the warrants said. He allegedly cleaned the inside of the freezer to remove evidence.
Dishman, meanwhile, used “bleach and a swiffer” to clean up blood and other bodily fluids from the living room floors and bedroom floor, and she used bleach and the bathroom shower to clean the victim’s body of evidence, the warrants said.
The warrants said both Finnegan and Dishman admitted to their crimes after being read their Miranda rights.
It’s not clear when the alleged crimes occurred. The affidavits said they occurred on or after December 23, 2019.
Sexton told Judge Miller on Tuesday that Dishman wants to be evaluated. It’s not unusual in homicide cases for defendants to seek a mental health evaluation. The October 27 court date for Dishman is expected to include an update about the status of her evaluation. Those evaluations can take weeks to set up and complete.
Several relatives of Paxton were in the courtroom on Tuesday.
“We’re seeking justice for Jennifer Paxton,” cousin Beverly Jeffers said. Jennifer’s mother, grandmother, and children are all mourning her death. “She was loved, and we just want justice for her. She needs justice.”
An obituary for Paxton said she has seven children, and she is survived by her mother, a brother, and grandmother. There was a receiving of friends and funeral for Paxton on Saturday, August 15, and a graveside service and interment on Sunday.
Dishman has reported no income or assets other than a car, and Sexton was appointed to represent her. She is to wear a GPS monitor if she is released on bond.
Finnegan has reported no income or assets, and he has also been appointed a public defender.
In an indigency affidavit, Finnegan said he and his family will not be able to post bond. But if he is able to be freed on bond, Finnegan is to wear an electronic monitoring device, a GPS monitor.
Anyone with information that may help investigators is asked to call ORPD at (865) 425-4399. Crime tips can also be submitted online at http://oakridgetn.gov/department/ORPD/Home. Information can be given anonymously.
If Clark were to seek the death penalty in the case, it would be the third time he has sought the death penalty since 2012.
The death penalty was initially sought against Valerie Stenson, an Oak Ridge grandmother charged with first-degree murder in the death of her toddler granddaughter in 2011. But the death penalty was later withdrawn. Prosecutors cited mental health issues, expense, and the strain put on the local court system in death penalty cases. Stenson pleaded guilty in May 2019 to second-degree murder. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and she is to serve 100 percent of that sentence.
The other recent death penalty case was against Norman Follis and Tammy Sue Chapman. Follis was convicted by an Anderson County jury in May 2016 of first-degree murder in the death of his uncle in Claxton. But the jury did not sentence Follis to death, choosing to sentence him to life in prison instead with no possibility of parole. Chapman pleaded guilty to facilitation of first-degree murder in June 2016, and she received a 22-year prison sentence.
See previous story here.