By Wendy Holdren
Bernard Joseph Garrison pleaded guilty Thursday to first degree robbery and breaking and entering before Raleigh County Circuit Judge H.L. Kirkpatrick.
Garrison, 32, of Crab Orchard, had previously been charged with the first degree murder of Toby Lee Harrah, who died in September 2010 while the two were attempting to steal copper from an AEP substation.
In August 2010, Garrison and co-conspirator Harrah, 39, robbed two female employees of CJ’s Tobacco as they were leaving with over $5,800 in cash to deposit. Garrison was armed with a paintball gun, which looked like a rifle, and Harrah was armed with a pipe or stick. The men forced the women to the ground and stole their purses and the deposit money.
In September 2010, the two men, along with Garrison’s wife at the time, Jennifer Garrison, attempted to steal copper from an AEP substation in Pemberton.
Harrah was electrocuted during the incident and the Garrisons fled the scene; Harrah died a day later at Cabell Huntington Hospital’s burn unit after sustaining third degree burns on his upper body.
First degree murder charges were initially filed in October 2010 against both Bernard and Jennifer Garrison.
Raleigh County Prosecutor Kristen Keller explained in October 2010 that “West Virginia law and the law in all states provide if you engage in one of the enumerated felonies such as breaking and entering, burglary, sexual assault, robbery and treason and a death occurs when you are participating in that felony, you can be charged with first degree murder.”
She referenced a 2006 case in which a man was found guilty of the first degree murder of Beckley Police Detective Cpl. Charles “Chuck” Smith. The man did not shoot Smith, but he set up the drug deal that resulted in his death.
Jennifer Garrison pleaded guilty in May 2012 to conspiracy for breaking and entering; Judge Robert A. Burnside sentenced her to not less than one nor more than five years in the penitentiary, which is suspended while she serves five years probation.
Jennifer said she planned to immediately divorce Bernard and would cooperate and testify against him during any further court proceedings.
In the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia in November 2012, a ruling in the case of Davis vs. Fox determined that surviving co-conspirators cannot be tried for murder in the event of a death.
“It is only because of the recent Supreme Court case that this defendant isn’t being prosecuted for first degree murder,” Keller said Thursday.
Garrison entered his guilty pleas and he will be sentenced March 28 at 9:30 a.m. in Raleigh County Circuit Court.
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