BISMARCK — A Bismarck man wants to withdraw his guilty plea to murder in the stabbing death of his wife 13 years ago because he says the plea wasn’t clearly explained to him by his attorney.
Russell Craig, 56, was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in the June 2006 homicide. He told South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick on Monday that he did not understand when he entered the plea that he could spend as much as 30 years in prison before being eligible for parole.
Craig was 43 at the time of Pamela Johnson-Craig’s death. Emergency personnel responding to a 911 call from Johnson-Craig’s neighbor found her bleeding from three stab wounds in her back. One of the wounds punctured an artery near her heart. She can be heard on the 911 call identifying Craig as the one who stabbed her.
Romanick last fall denied Craig's request to withdraw his plea. The North Dakota Supreme Court in May ruled that Craig deserved a hearing to argue his motion.
Todd Schwarz, who represented Craig at the time of the incident and who is now a deputy state’s attorney in Ward County, testified Monday that it was his understanding and that of his client that Craig would be eligible for parole in 20 years. He said he asked for confirmation of that from prosecutors at the time but acknowledged Monday that he did not seek that confirmation from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on his own.
Craig said it was with the understanding of 20 years that he changed his plea to guilty. He said he was emotional after hearing a recording of the 911 call and that some information relayed to him during court proceedings “went in one ear and out the other.”
“If 30 years was brought up, I still thought I’d see the parole board in 20 years,” he said, maintaining that he should have been notified of all the consequences, including how good time, or time deducted from a sentence for good behavior behind bars, is calculated. If he had known it would be more than 20 years, he said, "I would have gone to trial."
Craig entered into an open plea agreement, not one that stated an exact sentence, Burleigh County Assistant State’s Attorney Tessa Vaagen said. The terms were stated during his court appearances and he said then that he understood, according to the prosecutor.
“The time to bring it up was then, not now,” Vaagen said Monday. Under an open plea agreement, Craig could have been sentenced to far more time, including the maximum of life without parole, she said.
Craig’s current attorney, Todd Ewell, said it was manifest injustice because Craig was told by his attorney that he would be eligible for parole in 20 years.
“He relied on counsel that was ineffective,” Ewell said.
Romanick said he didn’t see how anyone had come up with 20 years as the time frame when Craig would be considered for parole.
“So, if I’d given him life without parole it wouldn’t matter?” Romanick said.
The judge agreed to consider Craig's request. It's not known when he'll rule.