U.S. District Court Judge Robert Whaley refused Monday to accept a guilty plea from a man who previously admitted killing another man in April 1991 on the Colville Indian Reservation.
James H. Gallaher Jr. was indicted by a federal grand jury in December 2005 even though the body of Edwin “Eddy” Pooler was never found on the 1.4 million-acre reservation in northeastern Washington.
The case against the 49-year-old defendant largely was built around confessions he had made to others, according to court documents.
Gallaher pleaded guilty May 25 in Spokane to a federal charge of involuntary manslaughter to avoid going to trial on a more serious charge of first-degree murder.
If convicted of murder, Gallaher faced the likely prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. But he faced only another four to six years in custody for involuntary manslaughter, and would have retained the right to appeal certain legal issues.
Moments before he was scheduled to be sentenced, Monday’s hearing was called off when the judge refused to accept Gallaher’s “conditional” guilty plea.
When Gallaher pleaded guilty in May, the judge expressed legal reservations about the written plea agreement.
“This plea agreement is odd,” the judge told the defendant in rejecting the deal. Gallaher’s attorney, Assistant Federal Defender Steve Hormel, urged the court to accept the plea.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Harrington said outside the courtroom that he was surprised by the judge’s decision, but stands ready to take the murder case to trial.
The judge told the courtroom, packed with the victim’s and defendant’s relatives, that the court wasn’t legally obligated to agree to such conditional plea agreements.
Under the plea deal, Gallaher would have been able to appeal the judge’s earlier decision not to dismiss the first-degree murder charge. Hormel argued last year that the charge should have been dismissed because the statute of limitations had lapsed.
The federal defender contended the murder on the Colville reservation wasn’t a “capital crime” – as defined by federal law in murder cases without a statute of limitations – because the tribe hasn’t adopted death penalty provisions.
Besides allowing that appeal, Whaley said from the bench, the plea agreement allowed Gallaher to plead guilty to manslaughter, even though the five year statute of limitations for that crime had lapsed.
The judge also said he would then be agreeing to a prison term for Gallaher that wouldn’t be permitted legally under the law.
“I’m not going to accept the conditional plea,” the judge said, telling Gallaher and his attorney that the first-degree murder trial will be scheduled for Feb. 25.
As part of his plea agreement, Gallaher took FBI agents in early June to a spot on the Colville reservation north of Keller, Wash., where he said he dumped Pooler’s body 16 years ago. Agents said some items of evidentiary value were recovered, but not a complete skeleton.
Gallaher remains in custody. He has been in prison since 1999, serving a 71-month term for being a felon in possession of ammunition.