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Linaburg submits guilty plea

November 30, 2000

Linaburg submits guilty plea



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer, Martinsburg


MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Roger Dale Linaburg pleaded guilty to second-degree murder Wednesday afternoon, bringing a halt to his trial in the 1999 shooting death of Benjamin Leo Lowrey.

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As a result of a plea bargain, Linaburg faces up to 20 years in prison for the Feb. 9, 1999 slaying.

The plea agreement was hammered out after Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes noted the limits on a self-defense strategy.

"I remember the first shot," Linaburg said in court. "I don't remember the second shot. We were struggling. I didn't think the .22-rifle would actually kill someone."

In his oral statement admitting guilt, Linaburg, 31, told Wilkes the shooting centered on "a long-term argument that has been going on over years" between him and Lowrey. He did not elaborate.

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Linaburg's wife, Deanna Linaburg, said outside the courtroom Wednesday the dispute centered on the relationship between Lowrey and Linaburg's sister, Robin Linaburg. Deanna Linaburg said Lowrey was making threats against Robin Linaburg based on her seeing other people while he had been in prison.

"That's where it all started," she said in an interview. The argument continued through the day of the killing, she said.

"He felt like he was being threatened at that point," she said.

Linaburg's long-standing belief that Lowrey represented a threat was part of a self-defense theory that Linaburg's attorney Craig Manford was planning to present before the plea agreement was made.

West Virginia State Police Trooper Jeff Phillips testified that Linaburg, on the night of the shooting, said he was protecting himself and his family by shooting Lowrey.

Phillips also testified that Linaburg told him Lowrey had boasted of "a big plan" to shoot many people. In his opening statement Tuesday, Manford made note of Lowrey's criminal past.

On Wednesday, Wilkes said he surmised Manford would use self-defense as his theory.

But the judge cautioned Manford that the defense had only limited ability to employ a "he-needed-killing defense," using Lowrey's criminal past as a defense for the slaying.

Lowrey had spent almost 10 years in prison for a variety of offenses, most related to property crimes. Wilkes also cautioned Manford that any threats leading to a self-defense shooting had to be specific and close in "time, place and circumstance" to the shooting.

"A generalized assassination of the character of the victim is not allowed," Wilkes said. "A vigilante defense ... is not a recognized defense."

Wilkes also raised the possibility that Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely could attack Linaburg's character if Manford attacked Lowrey's.

Linaburg was convicted of involuntary manslaughter six years ago.

Outside the courtroom, Manford said his client also was prepared to argue that another gun was present in the trailer the night of the killing.

"That was going to be a key element of our defense," he said.

No gun was found, but Manford said he believed someone might have taken away the gun after the shooting.

Wilkes' admonitions to Manford set off a two-hour flurry of meetings centering on a possible plea agreement.

Linaburg had been charged with first-degree murder. The jury could have considered second-degree murder, a lesser offense, had the trial reached that stage.

Games-Neely had pursued a first-degree murder verdict to be rendered by the jury "without mercy," meaning Linaburg would have had to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Prior to the trial, Games-Neely had offered the defense the possibility of accepting a plea of first-degree murder "with mercy," meaning Linaburg would have been sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.

The prosecuting attorney said such an offer is "standard practice" by her office because it is so difficult to get 12 jurors to agree on the more stringent punishment.

"If the jury did not believe the self-defense argument, they could have given him first-degree (murder) without mercy," Manford said of the reason his client accepted the plea arrangement. "He chose to take the sure thing and not roll the dice."

"The victim's family did not want their family member attacked any more," said Games-Neely. "I was ready to go to the jury. But there are some times you defer to the victim's family. And the time he'll serve is comparable to what he would have gotten with first-degree murder with mercy." "It gives us a guarantee that he will serve time," said Lowrey's sister, Gloria VanMetre. "It could have gone the other way. We didn't know."

"I think he took his best choice," said Deanna Linaburg of her husband. "Nowhere along the line did he ever deny doing it."

The plea agreement came on the second day of trial and after Games-Neely finished making her case against Linaburg. The outline of events she had presented in court coincided with what Linaburg said occurred.

When he pleaded guilty, Linaburg explained he and Lowrey had spent most of the afternoon and evening at Linaburg's home, drinking beer and playing CDs. Deanna Linaburg, her two children and Lowrey's girlfriend, Betsy Jordan, also were present.

About 9 p.m., Roger Linaburg went to his sister's home and picked up his .22- rifle, returned home and used it on Lowrey, he told Wilkes.

Although sentenced to 40 years, he must serve a minimum of 10. With good-time credits, he will serve a maximum of 20 years, Games-Neely said.

He could also face federal charges of committing a crime using a gun, but Games-Neely agreed to recommend he not be prosecuted on such charges because he already will be in prison.

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