BEDFORD - Convicted Bedford County murderer John Gerholt fired his attorneys Tuesday in hopes of reviving his death-penalty case - a request the district attorney said he'll happily oblige - just days after Gerholt filed a federal lawsuit alleging a brutal assault by the county's former jail warden.
Gerholt, 42, said his lawyers misled him into a no-contest plea to his wife's 2008 shotgun slaying, a shooting he has long claimed was accidental. In a hearing Tuesday, Judge Daniel Howsare dismissed attorneys Thomas Dickey and David Beyer and prepared Gerholt for representation by a public defender.
Minutes after his dismissal as Gerholt's attorney, Dickey denied Gerholt's claim.
Dickey said he wanted to ensure that his name remains clear in the case. If Gerholt gets a new trial, Dickey said he doesn't want his reputation as a defense attorney impugned.
Gerholt has sent a flurry of legal filings and letters to court officers since his August plea, which spared him a trial and a possible death sentence.
Gerholt described himself as the victim of prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective counsel and - in a lawsuit filed Friday - assault and threats by onetime Bedford County Jail Warden Donald Orr.
"My family is not satisfied with a no-contest plea," Gerholt shouted as a sheriff's deputy led him out of the courtroom Tuesday morning.
Howsare said he'll schedule a second hearing within 40 days to determine whether Gerholt can withdraw his plea. To secure a trial, the convicted killer may have to prove that his attorneys were so ineffective as to undermine the case.
District Attorney Bill Higgins said he may agree with Gerholt's request, if only to get a trial and a possible execution. Gerholt was jailed for shooting his estranged wife, Karen Gerholt, at point-blank range with a sawed-off shotgun outside an Everett McDonald's.
"The defendant is not willing to accept a punishment for an accident," Gerholt said in a post-conviction motion.
Gerholt's court filings from state prison - and his energetic demeanor Tuesday - were a far cry from his Aug. 21 plea, when he choked back tears and said: "I must be held accountable for my crimes."
Gerholt has since alleged that the apparent conspiracy against him included not only the district attorney's office and a county judge but also a county corrections official as well.
In a lawsuit filed Friday in the U.S. District Court, Gerholt claimed that Orr attacked him in his cell in May, allegedly waking him before choking him and threatening to "personally see to it that [Gerholt] would spend the rest of his life in prison."
The alleged attack, Gerholt claimed, was punishment for his attempts to contact Higgins and the state police from jail.
State Trooper Jeremy Matas, who interviewed Gerholt at State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill in October, said Gerholt didn't describe the violent assault he's since charged in his lawsuit - at the time, Matas said, the prisoner said Orr merely poked him in the chest.
Orr, whose home phone number is not listed, was not available for comment Tuesday.
Higgins dismissed Gerholt's court petitions as a plea for attention; both Higgins and the convicted killer's former attorneys agree that he understood his plea at the time.
Now, Higgins said, Gerholt's attempts to secure a new trial could end with a guilty verdict and a death sentence.
"He's no longer accepting responsibility for what he's done. He deserves the death penalty," Higgins said Tuesday. "If Mr. Gerholt wants to face the death penalty, then by all means we are considering that option. Mr. Gerholt may get exactly what he wants."
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.