MARIETTA - A Newport Township man accused of murdering his neighbor nearly five years ago pleaded Friday in Washington County Common Pleas Court, but not to murder.
Mark F. Stevens, 48, of 2385 Bells Run Road, Newport Township, was charged in August 2012 with the 2008 shooting death of 42-year-old Patrick Arnold, his Bells Run neighbor. The unscheduled felony charge carried a penalty of 15 years to life in prison.
On Friday that charge was amended to negligent homicide, a first-degree misdemeanor charge to which Stevens pleaded no contest. The charge carries a maximum of 180 days in jail.
Washington County Prosecutor Jim Schneider painted the most detailed picture to date on how investigators believe the crime occurred.
"The defendant, who lived across the road at the time, was at the victim's house when (Arnold) came home from work. The defendant acknowledged being there and saying there was a struggle when Patrick Arnold produced the gun," he said.
The gun went off, hitting Arnold in the chest and causing his death, said Schneider. He said Stevens' neighbors would often find him on their property and Arnold had asked him to leave on previous occasions.
Stevens also pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony charge of tampering with evidence for disposing of the murder weapon, a shotgun belonging to the victim. The charge carries a maximum three-year prison sentence.
In exchange for the pleas, the state agreed to recommend a three-year prison sentence and will not further prosecute Stevens on any events surrounding Arnold's death up to this point, said Schneider.
"I'm satisfied with the result," said Schneider following the court hearing. "We felt that had we had a trial, the jury might have ended up with that same conclusion that we came to today, or worse, find him not guilty."
Washington County Sheriff's Office Detective Lt. Jeffrey P. Seevers, who investigated the case, said when contacted after the plea hearing that he could understand that some would be disappointed with what could be considered a light sentence.
"If that was my brother or my son it would be hard (to accept)," he said. "But the law is what it is and that's what the sentence is for what he pled to."
Seevers said he didn't feel that the case wasn't strong enough for a murder conviction but felt that the evidence ultimately "supported what he pled to."
When Stevens was originally charged with murder, not all the evidence available currently was in place, he said, and investigators weren't sure if the killing was intentional.
Washington County Sheriff Larry Mincks also said he is satisfied with the conclusion and believes the guilty party was found.
"I think this is the result of a lot of hard work by two excellent investigators," said Mincks, whose office spent more than four years investigating Arnold's death.
But some people still believe Stevens is not guilty, including his attorney, Washington County Public Defender Ray Smith.
"I'm absolutely not satisfied. Mark doesn't like it, but he'd rather this than spend the rest of his life in prison," said Smith, citing the possible sentence if Stevens had been found guilty of the murder charge at trial.
The real killer is still out there, said Smith.
"I just hope he's brought to justice," he added.
Additionally, some members of Arnold's family are still not convinced of Stevens' guilt, said Schneider.
"For them, the case isn't closed," he said.
Because of the plea, testimony will no longer continue in what was an ongoing hearing on whether or not to suppress Stevens' recorded confession to the crime.
The defense had argued during hearings last Monday that the confession was not voluntary because Stevens was plied with beer and the prospect of making money. The hearing was scheduled to continue this Monday, but was canceled in light of the plea.
Smith said he and his client chose to plead now because they believed the plea agreement would be withdrawn if they waited to see the conclusion of the suppression hearings.
"He made the offer and we felt it was the best avenue to pursue in this case," he said.
Stevens is scheduled to be sentenced July 22 at 11 a.m. in Washington County Common Pleas Court.