Stratton defendant pleads guilty, but...

Friday, February 14, 2003

BENKELMAN -- A Stratton man facing prison time on weapons, threats and assault charges pleaded guilty Wednesday, but really didn't admit he was guilty.

Dundy County District Court Judge John Battershell accepted Robert Todd's guilty plea, but wasn't entirely convinced he was guilty.

Todd, 25, had been originally charged with:

- Use of a firearm to commit a felony, a Class II felony punishable by up to 50 years in prison (a sentence which must be served consecutively with any other sentence);

- Terroristic threats, a Class IV felony punishable by 20-60 months in prison or a $10,000 fine, or both; and

- Second degree assault, a Class IIIA felony punishable by up to 60 months in prison or a $10,000, or both.

The charges stem from a confrontation with William McGinnis in Haigler on Sept. 16, 2002.

In December, Todd pleaded not guilt and requested a jury trial. The trial was scheduled Feb. 19 and 20.

In a plea agreement arranged by Special Prosecutor D. Eugene Garner and Todd's attorney Blake Edwards, Todd agreed to plead guilty to amended charges of two counts of Class IV felony terroristic threats. In the arrangement, the weapons and assault charges would be dropped.

Todd told Battershell he changed his plea because he was afraid of a jury conviction on the greater charges.

Todd told Judge Battershell he was dating McGinnis's wife, Grace (who was separated from her husband), in September, and had heard rumors McGinnis was going to shoot him. Todd said he went to McGinnis's house in Haigler and told him Grace meant a lot to him. McGinnis told Todd he denied spreading rumors.

Later that same evening, Todd said he returned to McGinnis's house and McGinnis had two guns, a pistol and a rifle, pointed at him.

"My first reaction was to get the guns away from him," Todd told the judge. The two wrestled around, Todd said, the pistol got knocked away and it went off. "McGinnis hit me with the rifle," Todd said.

"Your honor, I never threatened him," Todd told Battershell. Evidence, if present at a trial, may have indicated a different story.

Garner said Todd and two friends went looking for McGinnis early that evening, and a Haigler resident would testify they had been drinking and that Todd was upset.

McGinnis would testify, Garner said, that Todd told him he was dating his wife, and if he had a problem with that, Todd and his friend would take care of it, and that Todd would shoot McGinnis.

Later that evening, Todd and his friends returned to McGinnis's house and Todd and McGinnis argued. Todd told McGinnis, Garner said, five guys have their sights on McGinnis right now, and that he (Todd) was going to kick McGinnis's a--.

Both guns discharged as the two scuffled, Garner said, yet no one was hit or struck directly. McGinnis suffered a powder burn, Garner said.

Battershell said this seemed to be "a classic case of self-defense," and there was not sufficient evidence to find Todd guilty. He said, however, given the circumstances outlined, he could see how a jury might find in favor of McGinnis.

Todd told Battershell he was scared of being convicted of the greater charges at trial, especially since the incidents happened on McGinnis's property and that Todd went there twice.

Todd assured the judge that the guilty plea was entered of his own free will, agreeing, as the judge suggested, that he had, "chosen the lesser of the two evils," that he had made a voluntary and intelligent choice among the alternatives available.

Judge Battershell accepted Todd's guilty plea for its "Alford plea" nature, referring to a 1969 North Carolina and U.S. Court of Appeals case in which the defendant (Alford) disclaimed guilt despite damaging evidence, yet his plea of guilty to second-degree murder was motivated by his fear of the death penalty that could be imposed if a jury found him guilty of first degree murder.

Judge Battershell ordered a presentence investigation by probation officers and set sentencing for Monday, March 24, at 1:30 p.m.

Todd's bond was continued, and he was ordered to have no contact with William McGinnis.

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