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Jewish World Review April 12, 2001 / 19 Nissan, 5761

Sheila Toomey

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Confessed killer's guilty plea rejected

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The young man spoke in an even tone and with extreme politeness to the lawyer sitting next to him, but he was clearly frustrated. "I don't want to come to court again," he said loud enough for everyone to hear. "It's really a hassle."

It's a sentiment often heard in courthouses, offered by victims and their families weary with "system" fatigue, people who have taken off work or driven into town for yet another hearing.

But Joshua Wagner is a defendant who has confessed to killing a 15-year-old in a 1996 gang shootout.

"I would like to enter a plea of guilty today," Wagner told Judge Elaine Andrews.

"I feel it's been drawn out long enough. ... It's been five years that I've had to think about this."

But the criminal justice system isn't used to a murder defendant who doesn't want a lawyer and doesn't want a deal, who just wants to admit his guilt and get started serving a life sentence. A misdemeanant who just wants to get it over? Fine. But a killer?

That's what the hearing was about. Was there something so wrong with what Wagner wanted to do that the court couldn't allow it?

Wagner has been refusing a lawyer and trying to plead guilty since he first confessed last June. "I would still like to enter a plea of guilty today if at all possible," he said again Monday.

Over his objections, the judge appointed a public defender who brushed aside Wagner's wishes and entered a "not guilty" plea for him.

"He certainly appears to have the intelligence to do what he's doing," the judge said, "but there's something not right going on here."

A couple of police officers watching from the spectator seats felt they knew what was wrong: Refusing a guilty plea from a confessed killer. "He knows what he's doing," said Detective Don Krohn, one of the officers who took Wagner's confession.

Wagner, 23, is familiar with the criminal justice system. Except for a two-year stretch, he's been in some kind of lockup since his early teens.

Why Wagner chose to confess to a murder he had gotten away with is unexplained. There is some suggestion he was afraid to get out of jail because he thinks gang people are after him. Krohn and Detective Eric Hamre don't think "why" matters much.

"For some reason, he wants to set it right," Krohn said. "I think he finally feels bad about killing a 15-year-old kid."

Andrews ordered that Wagner be examined by a psychiatrist to make sure he is mentally able to make decisions about his case. Everything is on hold until then.

Sheila Toomey writes for the Anchorage Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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