It was “crystal clear” that a Bismarck man who pleaded guilty to the 2006 murder of his wife understood he could be sentenced to life in prison, a South Central District Court judge said in denying the man’s request to withdraw his plea and take the matter to trial.
Russell Craig, 56, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after he pleaded guilty in 2007 to the murder of Pamela Johnson-Craig. Craig argued this past August that he did not understand when he entered the plea that he could be in prison for 30 years before being eligible for parole.
He initially made his request to withdraw his plea last year, but it was denied by South Central District Judge Bruce Romanick. Craig appealed, and the North Dakota Supreme Court in May of this year sent the case back to Romanick, saying that Craig deserved a hearing on the motion.
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Craig “relied on counsel that was ineffective” at the time of his sentencing, his attorney, Todd Ewell, said at the August hearing. It was Craig’s understanding and that of his attorney at the time of sentencing, Todd Schwarz, that he would be eligible for parole in 20 years, according to Ewell. Schwarz in August testified that he asked for confirmation of that from prosecutors prior to sentencing but that he did not seek confirmation from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It was manifest injustice, Ewell said, that Craig was misinformed by his attorney.
If he had known it would be more than 20 years before he was eligible for parole, Craig said, he “would have gone to trial.”
Romanick in his most recent denial of Craig's claim said he did not find credible the comments Craig made about the Corrections Department telling prosecutors that he would be eligible for parole in 20 years. The sentencing transcript “clearly indicates” Craig was told he would have to serve 30 years before being eligible if the court were to accept the state’s recommendation of life with parole. Craig also indicated in a handwritten request for a sentence reduction that he would have to serve 85% of 30 years before being eligible, the judge said.
“It is crystal clear Craig understood he could be sentenced to life without parole and changed his plea anyway,” Romanick said in his ruling. The confusion of when he would be eligible for parole “does not rise to the level of manifest injustice at the time of his plea,” the judge said.
Ewell declined comment Friday. Court documents show Craig has filed an appeal with the North Dakota Supreme Court, asking the panel to decide if the district court erred in denying his motion to withdraw the guilty plea.
Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com