AP NEWS

Man accused of killing friend, former business associate could be released from prison in less than 4 years

May 7, 2019

POCATELLO — For the second time in less than a week, a Southeast Idaho judge has approved a sentencing plea agreement that could put a convicted killer back out on the street in under four years.

On Monday, a man who shot and killed another man in broad daylight in the parking lot of a Chubbuck convenience store in 2017 received a sentence of 10 years in prison with the possibility of being eligible for parole after five years. He has already been incarcerated for over a year.

Sixth District Judge Stephen Dunn delivered the sentence at the Bannock County Courthouse Monday to Anthony Richard Leinweber, 39, of Chubbuck, in accordance with thresholds that the Bannock County Prosecutor’s Office and Leinweber’s Pocatello attorney, Dave Martinez, agreed to back in March when Leinweber pleaded guilty to a reduced charge.

In a separate and unrelated case, Sixth District Judge Robert Naftz sentenced Severo Luera, 39, of Garland, Utah, at the Oneida County Courthouse in Malad on Friday to a unified sentence of 16 years in prison with the possibility of being eligible for parole after eight years. This sentence was also made in accordance with an agreement with prosecutors in the case — the Idaho attorney general’s office, and Luera’s Pocatello attorney, Brendon Taylor.

In both cases, the respective judges imposed sentences in accordance with what is called a binding Rule 11 plea agreement. A Rule 11 agreement is a document defense attorneys and prosecutors sign after a defendant pleads guilty to a charge that sets thresholds on the penalties a judge can impose during sentencing.

But a judge does not have to accept the plea agreement and can impose a sentence up to the maximum possible penalty. In many cases, defendants have the right to withdraw their guilty plea and take their case to trial if the judge denies the Rule 11 agreement.

In more than 10 years on the bench as a district judge, Dunn said during Leinweber’s sentencing that he has only denied one Rule 11 agreement, primarily because he has learned to trust the work defense attorneys and prosecutors put in when crafting such documents.

“As a judge, you have to trust the people who appear in front of you to a certain degree,” Dunn said before he handed down the 10-year sentence. “It’s not my job to give kudos to anybody, but we have good prosecuting attorneys and good defense attorneys in this county.

“They prepare the cases the best they can, conduct the best investigations that they can and they make plea deals, which happens a vast majority of the time.”

Leinweber, who has been incarcerated since his September 2017 arrest for fatally shooting a former friend and business associate, Robert Phelps, 38, also of Chubbuck, in the parking lot of the Jackson’s convenience store on the 5000 block of Yellowstone Avenue, received his sentence after pleading guilty to a reduced charge in March.

Leinweber was originally charged in 2017 with second-degree murder, which carried a minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum penalty of life in prison for shooting and killing Phelps.

The shooting occurred at approximately 2:15 p.m. on Sep. 29, 2017 in front of the Jacksons convenience store. After Leinweber had gone into the store to make a purchase and returned to his car, Phelps, in his own car, rapidly accelerated from his mechanic shop located across the street through four lanes of busy traffic on Yellowstone Avenue to the parking lot of the convenience store, according to police reports.

While Leinweber sat in his car, Phelps approached the vehicle quickly and appeared angry, police said. Leinweber, who thought Phelps might be armed, told Phelps to retreat back to his car twice.

When Phelps refused, Leinweber shot Phelps once in the chest with a pistol, police said. Leinweber attempted to provide him with first aid but Phelps succumbed to his injuries at the scene. Phelps was unarmed when he initiated the argument with Leinweber, police said.

Leinweber initially pleaded not guilty to the murder charge in January 2018.

After mediation, however, Leinweber agreed to a plea deal in which the second-degree murder charge was downgraded to involuntary manslaughter. Two weeks before the case was scheduled for trial he pleaded guilty to the reduced charge on March 14.

In addition to the unified 10-year sentence, Leinweber received credit for the 19 months he has served behind bars at the Bannock County Jail in Pocatello. This means he will be eligible for parole in October 2022.

Leinweber, who did not make any statements to the court, appeared without emotion during the sentencing hearing. Several of Phelps’ family members addressed the court Monday, including Phelps’ 17-year-old daughter and his 18-year-old son.

Phelps’ children spoke about how their future children will never have the opportunity to know their grandfather, nor will Phelps’ ever have the chance to watch them grow up.

Phelps’ stepmother, Janet Phelps, cautioned the judge in accepting the reduced plea and imposing a more lenient sentence, adding that she has no doubts Leinweber would use a gun to solve his disputes in the future if given the opportunity to do so.

Bannock County Prosecutor Steve Herzog said his decision to make a plea deal with Leinweber centered on questions a jury may have had involving whether or not Leinweber may have acted self-defense. Further, Herzog said the case could have been difficult to try in front of jury, considering certain facts of the case remained unclear in advance of the trial.

Herzog said that the toxicology report on Phelps indicated he had methamphetamine, opiates and alcohol in his system at the time Leinweber shot him. He also said that the incident was captured on surveillance video cameras installed at the convenience store that shows Leinweber inside his car when Phelps initiated the confrontation.

“This case was going to turn on self-defense,” Herzog said. “One factor is that Mr. Phelps initiated contact with Mr. Leinweber. His body language suggested that he was upset by the way he was walking. It was anticipated that evidence could have come in that showed Mr. Leinweber believed that Mr. Phelps was out to get him, to hurt him.”

Herzog said the case has given him pause, but he has concerns about how a jury would view the case, and he noted it would be hard to disprove that the defendant acted in self defense.

”This is a complicated, tragic case and certainly this resolution doesn’t really do right by the family,” he said. “It seems like a pretty low-price for taking a life, but the decision was mine and reached in conjunction with the defense. In the state’s perspective, it was a reasonable resolution.”