A Beckley man sent to jail for a 1990 murder pleaded guilty to those same charges Monday, bringing to an end a strange case wrought with 14 years of appeals.

Paul D. Farmer, 46, was convicted by a Raleigh County jury in 1992 of first-degree murder and kidnapping, both with the use of a firearm, and felony conspiracy, in the brutal death of John Maxwell. Raleigh County Circuit Judge Robert Burnside ordered the life sentences that accompany those charges to run consecutively.

Because the jury convicted him with mercy, that would have made Farmer eligible for parole after serving a total of 20 years, two 10-year terms.

Farmer appealed his conviction to the state Supreme Court, and twice, the lower court’s ruling was upheld. Then, unknown to the Raleigh County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Farmer filed a habeas corpus through federal court. (The state Attorney General’s office represents the state in such matters before the federal court.) That request was granted, and Burnside received notice Farmer was going to be released.

“The attorney general’s office, for reasons not explained, did not object,” Chief Deputy Assistant Prosecutor Kristen Keller explained.

So she filed an appeal in federal court, arguing the attorney general’s office abandoned the case and that Chief Federal Judge David Faber was wrong in granting the habeas. That court told her only the Attorney General could object, but Keller persisted. And Faber ultimately ordered the case be retried in Raleigh County Circuit Court by Oct. 23 or else the federal court would release Farmer.

The state, 16 years after the murder, prepared its case again. Then, Monday afternoon, Farmer agreed to plead guilty in a plea bargain that makes him eligible for parole five years sooner.

“It’s time for me to accept some sort of responsibility for the death of John Maxwell that night,” Farmer told Judge H.L. Kirkpatrick Monday in Raleigh County Circuit Court.

Since his 1992 conviction, the state statute has been amended to make defendants serving life sentences with mercy eligible for parole after serving 15 years, instead of 10. The kidnapping life sentence with mercy still has a parole eligibility after 10 years. But in this bargain, the state agreed to recommend concurrent sentences. That would make Farmer eligible for parole after serving 15 years, which means he could appear before a parole board immediately.

Kirkpatrick followed the state’s recommendation after Farmer entered his pleas Monday and sentenced him to the two life sentences, with mercy, and one to five years for felony conspiracy, to be served concurrently.

Keller said the state was prepared to prove at trial that Farmer and co-defendant Harry Reynolds (who is also serving a life sentence) on July 30, 1990, directed Farmer’s girlfriend to follow 26-year-old John Maxwell to Beckley West Apartments. There, the two men used a metal pipe in a suede holster to force Maxwell into their car. One of the two men fired a bullet into Maxwell’s head, but it did not kill him. They drove to a wooded area, dragged the body into the woods, and shot him again in the head. They also stabbed him four times.

Farmer’s girlfriend, a key witness, would have testified that they then made her drive home and get blankets, shovels and accelerant, Keller said. They put the body in the hatchback of her vehicle, then drove to an abandoned graveyard. There, they set the body on fire, dug a hole and buried it. They attempted to wash the blood out of the car at Dow’s Packette.

Maxwell’s mother reported him missing, and when police caught up to the girlfriend’s vehicle, blood matched. They found the body in the graveyard.

“Is that pretty much what happened?” Kirkpatrick asked Farmer.

“Pretty much, yes, sir,” he answered.

“I just don’t feel like going through the fight, the battle in the courtroom,” Farmer said when Kirkpatrick asked him why he agreed to plead guilty. “ ... I don’t want to put the Maxwell family through any more problems. ... I want to own up to a little responsibility of what may have taken place that night.”

— E-mail:

bnaudrey@register-herald.com

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