A Douglas County judge Wednesday ruled prosecutors could not back out of an agreement to recommend a four-year reduction in the sentence of Major C. Edwards Jr., who was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the 2006 shooting death of Lawrence hip-hop artist Anthony Vital.
At the conclusion of a two-hour hearing, Chief District Judge Robert Fairchild ruled Edwards did not intentionally breach an agreement with prosecutors to testify against his co-defendant, Durrell Jones, in exchange for a lesser sentence. A jury in March was unable to reach a verdict in Jones’ first-degree murder trial. Prosecutors later dismissed the case against Jones, 24, of Kansas City, Kan., because they said Edwards had credibility issues.
The key issue in Wednesday’s hearing was a statement Edwards made at a July hearing in which he tried to withdraw his guilty plea in the case. Edwards had alleged that Amy McGowan, a chief assistant district attorney, had “coached him” on what to say when he testified at Jones’ trial. Edwards accused Jones of shooting Vital in a rural driveway west of Lawrence on Oct. 14, 2006.
McGowan has denied coaching Edwards as a witness, and prosecutors on Wednesday argued Edwards had admitted he lied about his testimony to get a better deal, destroying his credibility.
But Fairchild agreed with defense attorney Branden Bell who contended that Edwards never admitted he lied but instead appeared confused about how to address his deal with prosecutors when he testified at the Jones trial.
“I don’t believe that he intentionally tried to make himself incredible at this point,” Fairchild said. “I think he was trying in his own way to say what he believed happened.”
Prosecutors had also attempted to attack Edwards’ credibility because they said a former jailmate, Joe Hunter, had alleged after the Jones trial that Edwards said he was the one who actually shot Vital. That contradicted his testimony that Jones pulled the trigger. Edwards has denied he told Hunter that.
Hunter, 46, who is serving a prison sentence in Winfield for several theft and forgery cases, declined to testify about any past conversations with Edwards when he took the stand Wednesday morning.
“I told you I’m not going to answer no questions, and I’m sticking with that, so don’t waste my time,” Hunter told James McCabria, an assistant Douglas County district attorney.
Fairchild found Hunter in contempt of court, but because Hunter declined to testify, Fairchild said he could not consider Hunter’s alleged statements to prosecutors in his decision on Wednesday.
Bell, Edwards’ defense attorney, said after the hearing Fairchild’s decision showed that Edwards did hold up his end of the plea deal.
“For whatever reason (prosecutors) couldn’t secure a conviction (against Jones), and at that point of frustration they tried to throw Major Edwards under the bus,” Bell said.
McCabria denied that in court Wednesday and said prosecutors had an ethical obligation to dismiss the case against Jones because they believed Edwards had substantial credibility issues.
Fairchild is scheduled to sentence Edwards Nov. 7. Attorneys have said Edwards faces 18 years in prison based on his criminal history, or 14 years if Fairchild adopts terms of the plea agreement. But Bell said Wednesday he planned to argue Fairchild should not consider two of Edwards’ juvenile convictions as part of his criminal history. If he’s successful with that argument, Bell said, it’s possible Edwards could be released because of the amount of time he’s already spent in custody while the Vital case was pending.
Jones, who is serving time for a federal drug sentence, is scheduled to be released next year.