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By BOB WHITE
ELIZABETHTOWN – A plea deal aimed at keeping two men charged with murder and robbery from going to trial — in a death penalty-eligible case — failed to succeed Friday after one man denied guilt.
Attorneys and family members on both sides of the case converged in court at 9 a.m. Friday, anticipating guilty pleas from two Tennesseans charged in the July 2008 killing of Charles “Chuck” Dole and the robbery of his Radcliff clothing store, Now Fashions.
With codefendant Jamah Deonta Harris in another room, Knoxville native Jermaine Lamarl Kirkland, 21, admitted his role in the crime and to breaking into the same store four days earlier.
That second heist ended with Dole being shot fatally with a 7.62 caliber SKS assault rifle.
Kirkland admitted bringing the weapon along for the robbery, but said Harris pulled the trigger. With both charged with complicity to murder, their pleas had to reflect participation in the crimes for the deal to work out.
Kirkland’s plea did just that.
In exchange for his plea, Kirkland was willing to accept life with no possibility of parole until 2033, after 25 years behind bars.
He also admitted to a string of charges tied to his yearlong detention in Hardin County’s jail. Those charges included assaults and attempts to escape.
Finalizing his part of the joint plea deal, Kirkland left the courtroom expecting to have a chance at freedom sometime after he turns 45 years old.
That future was blown away, however, after Harris started answering a judge’s questions about the crime.
Harris denied any role in Dole’s death and professed ignorance of any plans to burglarize the store on July 17, 2008, or to rob it four days later.
Harris made it sound as though he was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time — both for the after-hours burglary and again for the robbery.
“So you believed he was just going in to look around?” Circuit Judge Ken Howard asked Harris about the day of the robbery. “... a store he’d tried to burglarize four days earlier?”
Throughout Harris’ two-hour pleading, he denied any criminal intent.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Shaw finally asked the obvious.
“So why would you be pleading guilty to complicity to murder?” Shaw asked.
“It’s in my best interest,” Harris answered.
Harris looked around the courtroom, seemingly surprised by a courtroom filled with expressions of disbelief and disappointment, shaking heads and tearing eyes.
After a long recess, Harris’ attorney, Charles Hagan, took control of the questioning, trying to straighten his client’s statements out to help the plea along.
Harris did no better with his handler leading the way, continually denying knowledge of criminal intent, or having a role in the murder or robbery.
Packing his paperwork as if to leave the courtroom, Shaw said plainly that the deal was off.
He then explained why.
“The commonwealth’s position is this: He’s charged with complicity to robbery, complicity to murder, complicity to tampering with evidence and complicity to burglary. But he’s saying he didn’t have anything to do with it. I can’t let him plead if he’s saying he didn’t have anything to do with it,” Shaw said.
Howard recessed the plea proceedings indefinitely.
After the hearing, Shaw confirmed that Harris’ botched plea spoiled the joint deal.
“Trial,” Shaw said. “I don’t see any other (way).”
Informed of the outcome by a reporter hours after Harris’ was escorted back to jail, Kirkland’s attorney, Shelia Kyle-Reno, said she’d try to negotiate another plea deal for her client.
Harris’ attorney acted surprised by his client's performance.
“I am surprised he did not admit to more,” Hagan said. “I don’t know where we go from here.”
Harris family members, having traveled from Knoxville to see him plead guilty, left the courtroom teary-eyed and disappointed.
Dole’s daughter, Susan, also left the courthouse disappointed.
The trial for Kirkland and Harris remains on the docket for April. Jurors may consider the death penalty if they convict the pair as charged.
Since all pleas Friday were contingent on the joint deal, Kirkland’s admissions cannot be used against him at trial.
Stories heard Friday could play a future role, however, if either defendants’ stories change at trial. If that occurs, they could be subjected to perjury charges, according to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office.
Bob White can be reached at (270) 505-1750.