BUCKHANNON – A Weston man who was indicted for allegedly wounding his cousin in a non-lethal shooting at a Cleveland Avenue residence in April 2018 pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in Upshur County Circuit Court Wednesday.
Howard Joseph Landers II, 28, of Weston, entered into an agreement with Upshur County Prosecuting Attorney David Godwin in which he pleaded guilty to unlawful wounding, a felony, in connection to an incident that took place April 19, 2018 at 15 Cleveland Ave.
Landers, who fled from police following the 2018 shooting and was arrested in a Lewis County a day later, had been indicted by a grand jury on the more serious charge of malicious wounding, a felony, during the January 2019 term of Upshur County Circuit.
He was accused of shooting another man, William McCauley, in the side following a verbal altercation.
Per the agreement, Landers agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of unlawful wounding but refrained from providing a factual basis for his plea; typically, defendants who plead guilty in criminal cases are required to outline a factual basis for their guilty plea in court.
However, as 26th Judicial Circuit Court Judge Kurt Hall explained, per a doctrine established in a 1987 case in the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, a defendant may enter a plea of guilty without stating supporting facts.
Instead, in what’s known as a Kennedy plea, the defendant concedes that the state or prosecution has enough evidence to obtain a guilty conviction should the case go to trial.
“The state is going to give a factual basis for your plea,” Hall said Wednesday, after Landers had pleaded guilty. “Ordinarily, I’d call upon you to tell me the facts because I can’t convict you without knowing the facts surrounding the case, but because of [the precedent set in] Kennedy vs. Frazier, Mr. Godwin is going to lay out the facts.”
Godwin said officers with the Buckhannon Police Department had been dispatched to 15 Cleveland Ave. on the evening of April 19, 2018.
“There had been a shooting, and that’s the call they were answering,” Godwin said.
Godwin said investigating officers learned on that night, the shooting victim, William McCauley – who Landers later identified as his cousin – and two other women were at the residence when Landers and four other people arrived there in a single vehicle.
Godwin said once inside, the entire group became involved in a discussion about a motor vehicle that had been seized by the police following a traffic stop.
“There was some discussion about how to get that (vehicle) back, and Mr. McCauley apparently made a threatening comment about a woman named Sherry, with whom [Landers] had a relationship with,” Godwin said. “That made him angry, and he took possession of a small silver firearm and pointed it at Mr. McCauley’s head.”
The prosecuting attorney said three witnesses had given statements saying they saw Landers pointing the gun at McCauley’s head.
Soon after, Landers and the people he’d arrived with began to depart.
They were leaving a bedroom in which the three people who lived there – including McCauley – had gathered, Godwin explained.
“Mr. Landers came into the bedroom with the others, and they began to leave when the shot happened … when they were out of vision of all the other people except for Mr. McCauley,” Godwin said.
Godwin said a .22-caliber firearm was fired.
“The bullet went into Mr. McCauley’s left side, out into his forearm and also hit his thumb,” he said. “The gun has been taken away by law enforcement … Mr. McCauley saw the shot, but [the others] didn’t see the shot. They heard the shot. The bullet was recovered. It spent itself and was up on the bed.”
Godwin said although Landers had not admitted to shooting McCauley, he did admit that a comment McCauley had made earlier had angered him. Godwin also added he believed “some kind of drug transaction” was involved.
Landers’ attorney, James Hawkins Jr., said he and Landers believed the plea was in Landers’ best interest not only because being found guilty of malicious wounding could expose him to two to 10 years in prison, but also because other charges in the case could be pending.
“This indictment was presented in January, and at that time, we had already pretty much negotiated this resolution,” Hawkins told Hall. “I think there were perhaps other charges pending … this is not just a one-count indictment. It’s clearly in Mr. Landers’ best interest because it’s more complicated.”
Landers had previously told the judge he’s been found guilty of two other felonies – grand larceny and nighttime burglary. Based on the fact that Landers is a felon, Hall said Landers could have potentially been charged with prohibited person in possession of a firearm.
After Landers waived his right to a presentencing investigation, Godwin asked that Hall sentence Landers to an indeterminate sentence of one to five years in the state penitentiary. He added he did not wish to seek restitution for McCauley’s medical treatment at the hospital.
“We had brief contact with him, and since then he’s been completely unresponsive to our office,” Godwin said. “He absconded from our services months ago. There was a medical expense, but it was paid by Medicaid.”
Hall noted it made sense that Landers was “pleading guilty without admitting guilt” via the Kennedy plea doctrine to avoid being exposed to West Virginia’s recidivist statute, also known as the “three strikes law,” under which a person who is found guilty of three separate felonies could potentially be sentenced to prison for life.
Hall sentenced Landers to one to three years in the penitentiary and ordered him to pay $350 in court-appointed attorney fees within 180 days from Wednesday, March 13.
“I’m going to find that this resolution is in the interest of justice, of the state, of the defendant and of the victim,” the judge said.
Hall also granted Hawkins’ request for Landers to receive credit for time served in jail since he was arrested in April 2018.
Hall then addressed Landers.
“What’s going to happen when you get out?” Hall asked him. “Are you going to play with guns and shoot people?”
Landers said no; he planned to leave West Virginia and would likely move south.
Hall asked Landers if he knew the shooting victim, McCauley, to which Landers responded, “Yeah, he’s my cousin.”
“You’re young, you’re 28, and you’ve still got a lot of life ahead of you,” Hall advised Landers. “If I were you, I wouldn’t want to spend it in prison.”