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Dixon man accused of murder tries to force prosecutor to honor plea deal
DIXON, Mo. (June 4, 2010) — A Dixon teenager accused of killing a man by kicking and beating him to death still doesn’t have a trial date set and her co-defendant’s lawyer is trying to force Pulaski County Prosecutor Deborah Hooper to comply with the terms of a previous plea agreement.

Ashley Gilbert, 18, has been in jail awaiting trial for more than a year, according to documents filed Wednesday in Phelps County Circuit Court by her Rolla-based lawyer, John Beger.

Gilbert has pleaded innocent to a Class A felony charge of second-degree murder and is accused of kicking and beating Dixon resident David A. Blankenship to death on May 10 of last year along with her ex-boyfriend, Robert Fortner, 31, also of Dixon, who until he entered a plea agreement had been facing the same charges. Both are accused of causing Blankenship’s death by repeatedly striking him with their hands and feet.

The maximum penalty for a Class A felony is 10 to 30 years or life in prison, depending on circumstances.

Gilbert’s lawyer said the delay of the jury trial planned for last month in Pulaski County wasn’t her fault.

“On the original trial date (Pulaski County Prosecutor Deborah Hooper) named a co-defendant as a witness requiring the defendant to take a deposition of (co-defendant Robert Fortner),” according to statements by Beger in court records.

Furthermore, Beger stated in court documents that Gilbert had to ask for the trial to be moved out of Pulaski County “because, in part, a state’s witness made misleading statements to the press.”

Those statements aren’t identified in court documents and none of the witnesses in Gilbert’s case have been quoted recently in the Pulaski County Daily News on matters related to her case.

However, the Waynesville Daily Guide quoted Dixon City Marshal Cliffty Yoakum, who was present at the May 17 Pulaski County Commission meeting.

“I understand that’s what’s going on,” Yoakum said at that meeting in front of four reporters. “Sometimes you get the (plea bargain), sometimes it's (taken back). Sometimes, seven years becomes 40 years.”

The only plea agreement on file yet in connection with Blankenship’s death is one proposed by Hooper to Fortner in which, instead of the Class A felony charge of second-degree murder, Fortner would plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter “with a cap of eight years in the Department of Corrections in exchange for his truthful testimony and continued cooperation in the case of State v. Ashley Gilbert.”

Voluntary manslaughter is a Class B felony which ordinarily carries a penalty of 5 to 15 years in state prison.

That document was filed on May 17, the same date Yoakum made his comments at the county commission meeting.

Before agreeing to the plea bargain, Fortner’s case had been set on April 12 by Associate Circuit Judge John Clayton to go to a five-day jury trial on June 28 that was expected to take until July 2. Fortner is being represented by the public defender’s office. It’s not clear what happened next, but according to court documents, Hooper now wants to revoke her plea agreement offered to Fortner.

According to court documents filed on May 24 by the public defender’s office, “On May 21 (Hooper) informed counsel for the defense that the offer was revoked due to statements made by (Fortner) while in custody at the Pulaski County Jail … at the time the offer was revoked, no investigation had been made into the statements or the context of the statements.”

In the public defender’s petition, she asked the judge to enforce “the previously negotiated and validly accepted offer made in this case” and “order the prosecutor of Pulaski County to comply with (her) part of the plea agreement negotiated in this case.”

The public defender’s court petition also claimed that on May 17, Fortner “participated with counsel in a lengthy interview with (two detectives) who expressed satisfaction with defendant’s degree of honesty and detail” and on May 18, Fortner “participated with counsel in a deposition taken by attorneys (for Gilbert) until a recess was called by” one of Gilbert’s attorneys.

Other issues in the Fortner case file pertaining to Gilbert include a March 2 request by the public defender for disclosure of Gilbert’s pre-trial mental health examination and for her school disciplinary records from Dixon High School and Dixon Alternative School on the grounds that Fortner “has reason to believe that co-defendant Ashley Gilbert has a propensity to violence, as evidenced by her high school disciplinary and attendance records” and that the request for those records “is reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery” of evidence benefitting Fortner.

Online court records indicate that the next step in Gilbert’s case will be next week Thursday, June 10, when the court will set trial dates. It’s not clear when the court will hear Fortner’s motion to force Hooper to honor the terms of her plea agreement with him.

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