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Former Hagerstown resident seeks to have arson conviction set aside

Donald Lee Edwards Jr. was sentenced to 15 years after pleading guilty to second-degree arson and two counts of reckless endangerment

October 17, 2012|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com

A man seeking to have his 2002 arson conviction set aside was in Washington County Circuit Court this week for a post-conviction hearing, even though retrying the case could mean a longer sentence.

Donald Lee Edwards Jr., 28, formerly of Hagerstown, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2002 after pleading guilty to second-degree arson and two counts of reckless endangerment. He was in court Tuesday seeking to have the plea set aside because it was not freely and voluntarily entered into, his attorney Melissa McDonnell told Judge Daniel P. Dwyer.

Edwards had been released from prison in 2010, having gained enough good time credits, but went back to prison on a parole retake after being arrested and convicted on a new charge in 2011, court records said. 

During Tuesday’s post-conviction relief hearing, Deputy State’s Attorney Steven Kessell said Edwards’ efforts to get the arson conviction set aside could backfire.

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“If he’s successful, it resets this case back to the very beginning,” Kessell told Dwyer.

The original charges against Edwards, including first-degree arson, several counts of attempted second-degree murder and possession of a destructive device, could result in a sentence of “240 years if he is found guilty of all the charges against him on retrial,” Kessell said.

Edwards was charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail-like device through the window of a house on St. Paul Road on March 3, 2002. The adults and children inside escaped, but the house was destroyed.

McDonnell told Dwyer the plea was not voluntary because the elements of the crimes were not explained to Edwards.

“I know I explained the difference between the elements of first- and second-degree arson,” testified Lewis Metzner, Edward’s defense attorney in 2002. That was because the charge was amended from first-degree arson to second-degree arson, he testified.

Metzner, who was called to the stand by Kessell, testified that Edwards entered the plea voluntarily, though, “I absolutely believe Mr. Edwards has mental health issues.”

While on the stand, Metzner also said that he believes Edwards’ “best hope” was to avoid having the verdict set aside and serving out the rest of his sentence.

Dwyer said he would issue a ruling on Edwards’ petition within a few weeks.

Edwards was sentenced to 15 years, but was released in 2010, Kessell said after the hearing. Later that year he was charged and later convicted of second-degree assault and sentenced to four years in prison, court records said.

That conviction triggered a parole violation on the 2002 case, Kessell said.

Whether or not his petition is granted, Edwards’ release date on the parole violation and assault conviction would be no later than 2017, Kessell said.

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