Murder defendant balks at plea deal

WOODSTOCK – An anticipated plea deal in the case of accused murderer Claude Delmus Shafer Jr. collapsed Monday in Shenandoah County Circuit Court when Shafer rejected it moments away from what would have been a conviction for first-degree murder committed during a burglary.

Shafer’s decision left attorneys on both sides scrambling. Within minutes, they restored the case to where it has been for the last two years: Shafer facing a possible death penalty sentence on a charge of capital murder in the death of Phyllis Kline, 64, in her home at 14887 Old Valley Pike, Edinburg.

Shafer is back to facing a trial, which has yet to be scheduled. The next hearing on Nov. 6 will focus on what kind of medication for several mental disorders Shafer should receive in the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail while he awaits trial.

The day started with members of Kline’s family assembling in the courtroom. Shafer entered the courtroom and sat down at the defense table where he remained hunched over with his head bowed for much of the hearing.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda McDonald Wiseley described the plea agreement to Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp. Wiseley said the Kline family members in the courtroom – two nephews, a brother, a sister and niece-in-law – had approved the agreement in the interest of bringing closure to the case instead of taking the chance that Shafer, if convicted and sentenced to death, could linger in prison through many years of legal maneuvering and appeals.

Edward Ungvarsky, one of Shafer’s attorneys, initially told Hupp that his client was willing to plead guilty to first-degree murder and the distinct possibility of a prison sentence of 40 to 60 years, effectively a life sentence. But, Ungvarsky said, Shafer, 38, was adamant that he did not actually kill Kline, although the defendant was present when the crime was committed.

Ungvarsky said one or two men with Shafer were responsible for the seven stab wounds to Kline’s head and neck that the state medical examiner deemed to be the cause of her death. Wiseley said the same men told sheriff’s office officials that they were not inside Kline’s home at the time Shafer allegedly killed her on June 13, 2013.

Hupp began asking Shafer a series of questions about the plea agreement pertaining to whether the defendant was entering it voluntarily and with complete understanding of its terms.

Asked whether he had consulted adequately with Ungvarsky and co-counsel Timothy Coyne, Shafer replied, “In a way, yes, in a way, no.”

At that point, Hupp adjourned the hearing to allow Shafer to confer more with Ungvarksy and Coyne. When the hearing resumed, Ungvarsky said his client was no longer willing to plead guilty.

Wiseley gave a summary of her evidence that included statements from two young males, one age 15 and the other 18 at the time of Kline’s death, that they had been outside the victim’s home when Shafer broke in through a door window.

Wiseley said the witnesses reported that Shafer showed them Kline’s lifeless body and warned the witnesses that they could suffer the same fate if they reported any information to law enforcement officials.

“If you tell anybody, this is what will happen to you,” Wiseley said, quoting Shafer’s statement to the two witnesses.

Wiseley said authorities also recovered several items during the investigation that linked Shafer to the crime. Wiseley said the forensic evidence included DNA under Kline’s fingernails and a knife that was “consistent” with the fatal wounds.

Shafer also gave sheriff’s office officials a statement that he had broken into Kline’s home although he “never admitted” to killing her, Wiseley said.

The hearing was originally scheduled to take testimony from RSW jail officials about why they are refusing to write a prescription for medication that Shafer had been receiving during a recent stay at Central State Hospital in Petersburg. But the tentative plea agreement reached by the prosecution and defense late last week nullified plans for the jail officials to appear in court Monday.

As a result, jail officials who would have been called to give statements about Shafer’s medication were unavailable Monday. Hupp scheduled a new hearing for 2 p.m. Nov. 6.

“I hope everybody here understands why we needed to postpone the case, and we’ll leave it at that,” Hupp said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com