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Dispute delays hearing in death of noted figure in District night life

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 8:30 PM

A Fairfax County woman entered a plea Monday morning in the slaying of a well-known District night-life figure last year, but the hearing broke down as the woman's attorney tried to build a case for the future dismissal of all charges against her.

Nathan "Dirk" Smiler, 37, lived with his girlfriend, Cara Cottle, in a rented house on Little River Turnpike in the Annandale area. Prosecutors said Cottle, a 32-year-old former Marine, shot Smiler once in the head with a bolt-action rifle on Feb. 15, 2010, killing him instantly in their basement bedroom.

Facing a murder trial Monday, Cottle and her attorney, Peter D. Greenspun, negotiated a plea deal with prosecutors to reduce the charge to involuntary manslaughter. Cottle would then enter an "Alford plea," in which a defendant doesn't admit guilt but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction. The plea has the same effect as a guilty plea.

Cottle entered her plea before Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Michael F. Devine Monday morning. But after Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Mark Sullivan gave a summary of the shooting, Greenspun launched a more detailed version of events that was to include tape-recorded statements by witnesses.

Sullivan objected, saying he wasn't expecting a defense presentation at what is typically a short hearing. Greenspun said he wanted the judge to hear a detailed version of the crime so that he could consider it before issuing a sentence.

The penalty for manslaughter ranges from probation to 10 years in prison. Virginia's voluntary sentencing guidelines recommend a sentence for Cottle, a first-time offender, of probation to six months in jail.

Greenspun told Devine that he would argue for a suspended imposition of sentence for Cottle, under a recent Virginia Supreme Court ruling that gives judges discretion to make such a ruling. A judge can suspend the case for a certain period of time, and if the defendant doesn't commit any more violations, the case is dismissed completely.

This kind of sentencing is mostly used for a first-time offender in a nonviolent case to allow him or her to keep a felony conviction off his or her record.

Before Greenspun could present his version of Smiler's final minutes, the judge decided to give the prosecution more time to prepare its response.

The hearing was continued to Tuesday.

Sullivan said Smiler had held the rifle to his own head and dared Cottle to pull the trigger. Cottle told police she didn't know the World War II-era rifle was loaded.

Smiler was a sommelier and waiter at a restaurant in Potomac. He was a popular fixture in the Goth nightclub scene in the District and in science fiction and Renaissance festival communities in the region.

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