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Thomas Dunn pleads guilty to two counts of murder; sentenced to life in prison

TYLER (KYTX) -- Two murders gone cold, more than 20 years ago. Tonight, there is justice for the victim's families. CBS 19's Michele Reese was in the courtroom and

TYLER (KYTX) -- Two murders gone cold, more than 20 years ago. Tonight, there is justice for the victim's families. CBS 19's Michele Reese was in the courtroom and tells us how these decades old cases were cracked and concluded.

In 1984 Thomas Dunn raped a woman in front of her kids. A few days later he murdered Frances Willingham at her home. He was convicted for both crimes and sentenced to death. But his murder conviction was overturned because his Miranda rights were not read to him correctly. Since then he's been serving time only for the rape.

Now just months before coming up for parole, DNA evidence links Dunn to the unsolved murder of Catheryn Powell. Friday, in court, Dunn admitted to killing Willingham and Powell closing the file on two of Smith County's coldest cases.

Fifty-nine year-old Thomas Dunn admits he raped and murdered Catheryn Powell in 1982. Investigators say he strangled her with her T-shirt and shot her in the head. Two years later Dunn murdered Frances Willingham by stomping her to death with his foot. Friday he pleaded guilty to those crimes and was sentenced to life in prison.

"Finally after 26 years we have 2 convictions," Smith County Assistant District Attorney, April Sikes, said.

The convictions come after Detective Joe Rasco with Smith County's Cold Case Unit reopened the investigation into Powell's death.

"I got a call in January 2005 from a family member who lives in Austin on Ms. Powell asking if we could look into the case," Rasco said.

Rasco found DNA evidence collected from an autopsy. "The swabs actually were gone she got the DNA off the sticks."

The results lead Rasco to Thomas Dunn who was serving time for rape.

"He confessed to me he killed Ms. Willingham."

Back in 1985 Dunn was convicted on capital murder charges and sentenced to death for killing Willingham. But his conviction was thrown out on appeal.

"The basis for the reversal had been the confession could not be used. Now we had a new confession in that case," Sikes said. "Mr. Dunn would not admit to the murder of Powell but we had DNA evidence."

They were leads investigators were waiting for to close these cold cases that haunted the victims families for years.

"There's justice first for Willingham and now for Catheryn Powell," Sikes said.

Closure for two families that will keep a violent killer off the streets.

Powell's case went unsolved for many years because in the nineties two infamous serial killers Otis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas said they had killed her. Lucus and Toole said they had killed close to 100 people all across the country. Det. Rasco said he can't find any evidence to link them to the crime.

Dunn 's attorney Cynthia Kent said they accepted the plea deal because the death penalty was taken off the table. Dunn will be serving two life sentences. He will be eligible for parole in 20 years.