It seemed a wise decision to Harry Douglas Seigler, on trial for murder in Richmond, when he agreed to a last-minute plea-bargain deal rather than wait for the jury to return with a verdict that might put him in the electric chair.
The only trouble was, while Seigler was pleading guilty in the courtroom, the jurors were waiting outside to announce they had found him innocent.
Today, Seigler sits in the state penitentiary in Richmond, stunned by the turn of events Wednesday that now has him sentenced to 40 years in prison for a crime he still maintains he never committed.
"We all left the courtroom after the plea thinking all was okay," said his attorney, John E. Dodson, who said the recent execution of Frank J. Coppola may have frightened his client into the guilty plea. "Now, I can't tell you how badly he feels."
Seigler, 30, had been charged with the brutal murder and robbery of a Richmond insurance agent, who bled to death after his throat had been slit virtually ear to ear, two inches deep. The trial, which began Monday, did not go to the jury until Wednesday afternoon.
Midway through the jury's deliberations, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Warren Von Schuch became uneasy and decided to offer a plea bargain.
"The jury had been out for a long time," Von Schuch said yesterday. "I got right nervous, because the longer a panel like that is out, the worse shape we're in."
His deal was a 60-year sentence, 20 years suspended, with 20 years for the robbery charge to run concurrently. Total sentence: 40 years. He would be eligible for parole in 12 years. Seigler's two attorneys, Dodson and Thomas Gordon, took the offer to their client, who was being held in the courthouse lockup.
"He was the only one back there," Dodson said. "He told me it was just about to drive him crazy."
As they presented the plea-bargain proposal, Dodson said that for the first time Seigler, who was serving a nine-year sentence for robbery in the penitentiary where Coppola was executed, expressed a fear of dying. After discussing the plea bargain, Seigler accepted it, Dodson said. A few minutes later they were before Circuit Court Judge William E. Spain.
"We were informing the judge of his decision to plead guilty when someone came up and said something about the jury," said Von Schuch. "I didn't hear what was said. But I guess he was telling the judge the jury had reached a verdict."
After the judge accepted the plea bargain, Seigler was led from the courtroom and the jury brought in. "They the jurors were told by the judge that the defendant was not present because he had decided to plead guilty," Von Schuch said. "There was moaning, there was visible surprise, disgust, on the part of the jurors. Some were shaking their heads. They didn't want him to plead guilty."
That the jury actually had reached a verdict was not discovered until later, however, when local reporters examined the document on which the jury recorded its finding of not guilty.