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Harpers Ferry man pleads guilty in 2006 slaying of bartender

January 11, 2008|By DON AINES

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. ? A Harpers Ferry, W.Va., man pleaded guilty Friday to first-degree murder and related charges in the December 2006 shooting death of a bartender in Harpers Ferry and likely will not be eligible for parole for more than 25 years.

James Robert Jones, 26, of 180 Campground Road, entered the plea agreement before 23rd Circuit Judge David H. Sanders, according to Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Larry Crofford. The guilty plea was under "Alford circumstances," said Crofford, meaning Jones did not contest the state's case, but did not have to make a statement in court regarding the crime.

On the night of Dec. 2, 2006, Michael Mihalik, 26, of Harpers Ferry, died of a single gunshot wound to the chest when Jones entered the Cliffside Bar and Grill at the Quality Inn on U.S. 340 and opened fire with a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun, police said. Two other men, Sean Foster and Richard Bannerman, were wounded in the incident, Crofford said.

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Other people in the bar subdued Jones until Harpers Ferry Police arrived, Crofford said.

In addition to first-degree murder, Jones has offered to plead guilty to four counts of wanton endangerment, that would run consecutive to the life sentence, and two counts of malicious wounding, to run concurrently with the life sentence, Crofford said. The sentences for wanton endangerment would be five years each and two to 10 years on each of the malicious wounding charges, Crofford said.

"This is something she wanted," Crofford said of Mihalik's mother, Rita Mihalik. "She knew there was the possibility (Jones) could be convicted of something less at trial."

Defense attorney Aaron C. Amore previously told Sanders he planned to argue Jones had a diminished mental capacity at the time of the shooting and was thus unable to form the requisite intent for premeditation or malice necessary for a first-degree murder conviction.

"It would have become a battle of the experts," Crofford said of a trial, which was scheduled for Jan. 22. The prosecution would have argued that, while suffering from mental illness, Jones was still capable of premeditation and malice.

Had a trial gone forward, it opened the possibility of Jones being convicted of voluntary manslaughter, which carries a sentence of three to 15 years.

A presentence report is required, and Jones will be sentenced in about 45 days, Crofford said. If Sanders accepts the plea agreement, Jones will likely spend 25 years or more in prison before he is eligible for parole.

A sentence of life with mercy means Jones would not be eligible for parole for at least 15 years. Additionally, he would have the consecutive sentences for wanton endangerment to serve, Crofford said.

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