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Murder plea revisited after 20 years

April 05, 1999|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - It took 33 days for Jeffrey Wayne Clever to be charged, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder, but it took 20 years for him to try to withdraw his guilty plea.

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On Monday Clever, 39, was back in Franklin County Court seeking to withdraw the plea in the April 19, 1979, shooting death of his girlfriend, Cynthia Lea Wilson, 19, of Shippensburg, Pa.

According to his petition for a post-conviction hearing, Clever did not "knowingly, intelligently or voluntarily" waive his right to counsel and enter the guilty plea.

"Judge (George C.) Eppinger had asked me if it was still my desire to proceed without counsel and I said it was," Clever said Monday. He claimed, however, that he was depressed at the time he entered the plea.

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Eppinger, who accepted the plea on May 9, 1979, died several years ago.

Clever was 19 when he pleaded guilty to criminal homicide. That was followed by a May 21 hearing to determine the degree of guilt.

"That was an accepted procedure at the time," said Franklin County District Attorney John F. Nelson, who handled the case as an assistant district attorney and was once again representing the commonwealth.

Nelson said after the hearing he wasn't sure if the procedure is still allowed in Pennsylvania.

In criminal homicide cases, possible convictions range from first-degree murder to involuntary manslaughter. At degree-of-guilt hearings, the prosecution and defense could introduce evidence as to what level of homicide the defendant committed, Nelson said.

Clever filed his post-conviction petition in 1981 and a second in 1990. The hearing was based on an amended version of the 1990 petition.

During the 1979 hearing, Clever said he meant to kill Wilson, but offered little mitigating evidence, according to court records. The next day, Eppinger ruled the case first-degree murder and sentenced Clever to life in prison.

Clever said Monday he had little contact with attorneys before entering the plea and little explanation about the degrees of criminal homicide, penalties and the right to counsel.

"All I ever did was sign my name ... on any forms they gave me," he said during questioning by his attorney, David C. Wertime.

According to court records from 20 years ago, Clever had the late Public Defender Blake Martin standing by to offer advice but did not act on his recommendations.

"It was my suicide pact. It was not her suicide pact," Clever said Monday. He said he intended to kill himself after shooting Wilson but could not pull the trigger.

"I think I talked myself into thinking she'd want the same thing, too," he said.

The hearing was continued with no new date set. Wertime and Nelson will have the opportunity to present more evidence when it resumes.

If Judge Richard J. Walsh grants Clever's request to withdraw his plea, the case could go to trial, said Wertime.

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