Historical Series: The Time a Future Supreme Court Justice Defended an Accused Murderer in Venango County

| January 16, 2023

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – Historical Series: “The Time a Future Supreme Court Justice Defended an Accused Murderer in Venango County,” Part Three. It was January 20, 1958, and 21-year-old wife and mother, Lydia Dean, originally from the Philippines, sat in her cell at the Venango County Jail for the 44th straight day.

(Photo Above: Lydia Dean as seen in The Nashville Tennesseean, February 5, 1958.)

Venango County Historical Series is brought to you by First United National Bank – The FUN Bank!

Lydia was accused of killing her 29-year-old Air Force sergeant husband, Ronald Dean, with a .45-70 caliber “buffalo gun” shortly after he told her he wanted a divorce so he could marry a woman he’d impregnated during his recent 17-month deployment to the United Kingdom.

The community had rallied behind Lydia and had raised enough money for her legal defense.

This was the day Lydia had been waiting for. She knew that across the street at the Venango County Courthouse, a grand jury would be convening at 10:00 a.m.

(Lydia Dean, followed by future Philippine Supreme Court Justice Estanislao Fernandez, walking to the courthouse to stand trial.)

She had pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges 41 days previous and had been on an emotional rollercoaster ever since. She’d been informed through her lawyer the day before that Estanislao Fernandez, a famous trial lawyer and criminologist from her home country, was on his way to assist in her defense. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania had granted him special permission to appear in court on her behalf.

Fernandez was set to arrive in Pennsylvania in three or four days, already having departed Hong Kong already by plane.

(The motion to admit Estanislao Fernandez for the defense of Lydia Dean.)

This was all good news, but her mind couldn’t rest. Would the grand jury indict her? If so, she’d be facing a jury in as little as a week.

She didn’t have to wait long to hear the answer to her question. Not even another day. The grand jury, after hearing testimony from five witnesses, indicted Lydia of the first-degree murder of her husband. Seven witnesses were scheduled to testify, but the grand jury decided there was no need to hear from Ronald’s parents.

(The first page of Lydia Dean’s indictment.)

Lydia’s trial was scheduled to begin on January 27th in front of Judge Lee A. McCracken, Venango County’s only jurist at the time.

Fernandez–who at the time was the vice president of the Philippine Lawyer League and later would become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines–along with Lydia’s Oil City lawyer, J.G. McGill, predicted that she’d be acquitted.

“Our defense will be directed toward an acquittal,” Fernandez said. “Although married and the mother of a three-year-old girl, Mrs. Dean is actually a child who was treated very badly by her husband.”

The pressure had been getting to Lydia according to Fernandez.

“She used to take things easy and did not appear sad,” he said. “But now that the trial is actually here, she has started to cry quite a bit.”

Standing trial for murder is a stressful thing, but the community continued to try to make things easy for her. Her cell was described as a place that “resembles a private residence.” Only two other prisoners were lodged on the same floor as Lydia, a far cry from the over-crowded Venango County Prison today.

(Lydia Dean sits in her cell at the Venango County Jail, described as a “private residence.”)

“Mrs. Dean is no trouble at all,” Sheriff John E. Cunningham said. “She usually eats all her food and never complains. In fact, she told me she has gained six pounds since she has been locked up here.”

As the trial got underway, Judge McCracken prohibited photos or television cameras inside the court. “No standees” were allowed.

The trial itself was one for the history books, and I’ll tell you all about it in Part Four.

Read Part One: Historical Series: The Time the World’s Gaze Was on Venango County and Peace Hung in the Balance

Read Part Two: Historical Series: The Time Venango County Rallied Behind an Accused Murderess

Venango County Historical Series is brought to you by First United National Bank – The FUN Bank!

Stop at one of their offices in Fryburg, Clarion, New Bethlehem, Oil City, Franklin, or Cranberry and allow First United National Bank to make you one of their satisfied customers.

For more information on “The FUN Bank,” visit Fun-Bank.com.

Special Thanks: The staff of the prothonotary’s office at the Venango County Courthouse have, once again, gone above and beyond in helping me find old court records. It’s thanks to their efforts that I have the official details of the court proceedings of Lydia Dean’s case.

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Gavin Fish is a reporter for EYT Media Group and YouTuber based in Venango County. In addition to his YouTube Channel, he has contributed to investigations and reports for ABC News, Investigation Discovery, and Fox Nation, and has collaborated on projects developed for Netflix, Oxygen, Discovery Channel, Amazon Prime, and Hulu.
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