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Pa. man convicted of manslaughter in wife's death, asks for new trial

July 13, 2012|By ROXANN MILLER | roxann.miller@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — A St. Thomas Township, Pa., man who was sentenced to a minimum of six years in state prison for the shooting death of his wife was back in court Friday asking that his plea be withdrawn based on bad advice from his attorney.

Christopher T. Jones, 33, said the advice his former attorney, David S. Keller, gave him was not effective, and was the reason he entered a guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter before Judge Shawn Meyers in January.

Jones is serving a six- to 14-year prison sentence for the shooting death of his 27-year-old wife, Kristin Runyon. Jones said he thought she was an intruder in the 5 a.m. darkness of their home on Feb. 25, 2010.

Jones was represented at Friday’s change of plea hearing in Franklin County Court of Common Pleas by K. Edward Raleigh of Boyle, Autry and Murphy of Camp Hill, Pa.

Raleigh called Jones as his first witness.

“He (Keller) was very ambitious about what he wanted to do in the court case, but as time went by it changed,” Jones testified.

Keller didn’t think it was necessary to use character witnesses or other things like the police report or videotape, Jones said.

Jones also said Keller didn’t clarify the difference between voluntary manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter.

“Mr. Keller said if I fired a weapon that’s voluntary manslaughter, and you aren’t going to win at trial,” Jones testified.

Raleigh asked Jones if Keller ever discussed defenses that could be used at trial such as self-defense or homicide by misadventure.

“Keller said this was not a self-defense case, but (I) never heard about homicide by misadventure,” Jones testified.

Jones said he pleaded guilty because Keller said he couldn’t win at a trial.

“I was told there was no way I could win at a trial because I fired a weapon and that’s voluntary manslaughter to a T. That’s what he (Keller) said,” Jones testified.

Franklin County Assistant District Attorney Lauren Sulcove referred to a letter sent by Keller to Jones on July 22, 2010.

Sulcove read excerpts from the letter, in which Keller stated having “grave concerns” that a jury would accept Jones’ argument that he shot to protect himself and his wife from imminent danger.

The letter also defined voluntary and involuntary manslaughter.

“They were vague,” Jones said.

Sulcove also presented a letter from Keller to Jones dated Jan. 7, 2011.

In that letter, Keller suggested that Jones get a second opinion from attorney Bill Costopoulos of Lemoyne, Pa. Sulcove asked Jones if he remembered Costopoulos saying the case was a “textbook case of voluntary manslaughter.”

According to Jones, who met with Costopoulos twice, Costopoulos said it was a case of involuntary manslaughter. Sulcove challenged Jones, asking why he would enter a guilty plea of voluntary manslaughter when Costopoulos told him it was a case of involuntary manslaughter.

“I followed what Keller advised me,” Jones testified.

Jones’ mother, Lana Jones of Spring Run, Pa., testified that one of her coworker’s husbands is an attorney and referred Keller to the family.

“He seemed to have good ideas at first. He said he wouldn’t have taken on his case if he didn’t believe Chris was innocent,” Lana Jones said.

As time went on, he (Keller) got perturbed, she said.

Frequently, either she or her husband accompanied their son when he met with his attorney. But toward the end, Keller wanted to meet with Chris alone, she testified.

“He pleaded guilty to get it behind him, to move on,” she said.

She testified Keller did nothing to help her son.

“He negotiated with the district attorney not to pursue the mandatory sentence and to drop the involuntary manslaughter (charge). Isn’t that helping your son?” Sulcove asked.

“Not when it ended up the way it did,” Lana Jones said.

The final witness was Keller, who said he met with Jones as well as Jones’ parents numerous times.

During his 33-year law career, Keller has faced allegations of ineffective trial counsel in two other murder cases. One was dismissed by the defendant, he said.

Keller answered all of the allegations Jones’ made against him, stating that he never pressured his client to enter a plea and not go to trial, and he discussed defense options.

He testified that he never discouraged Jones from going to trial, but he had doubts that a jury would accept Jones’ allegations that he was protecting himself and his wife from imminent danger.

Keller said he was aware that Runyon had told her husband that a prowler was lurking around the back door several weeks before the shooting. But, he testified, Jones is an experienced hunter and would have identified the target before firing.

Keller said he had no doubt the couple was a loving couple and that Jones had no intention of shooting his wife. But, there’s a big difference between a mistake and an accident, he said.

“It was a terrible and tragic mistake,” Keller said.

While on the witness stand, Keller testified his client said it was dark and he was just getting up for work. Keller said he thought it was relevant that the couple’s two dogs didn’t bark.

Sulcove played a police videotape in the courtroom Friday with Jones describing the events of Feb. 25, 2010.

Jones told police that he picked up the gun to protect himself and his wife. 

“I just shot. I didn’t think it ... it wasn’t intentional. It was reckless. I wanted to stop who was coming at me,” Jones said on the videotape.

After an hour and a half of testimony, Myers permitted counsel to submit further briefs.

Raleigh has until July 23 to file additional briefs and the Commonwealth has until July 31 to respond.

Myers will render his decision after reviewing the information.

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