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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Surber pleads not guilty

MARTINSBURG - Donald B. Surber Jr., the 37-year-old Winchester man indicted by a grand jury last week in the murder of his ex-girlfriend, entered a plea of not guilty to all charges Thursday at his arraignment in Berkeley County Circuit Court.

Surber was indicted Oct. 20 on one count of first-degree murder, kidnapping, attempted kidnapping, felony destruction of property, domestic assault, burglary, attempted escape, attempt to disarm an officer and attempt to possess a weapon by an inmate of a jail.

His ex-girlfriend, 35-year-old Katherine Nicole Sharp, was killed after Surber allegedly took her hostage at her home on Raider Lane near Hedgesville in June, leading to a 26-hour standoff with police.

Surber waived the reading of the indictment in open court, but he declined to waive his right to a speedy trial.

"Since he is incarcerated, we'll be requesting a trial within this term of court," said John Adams, of the public defender's office.

Adams is assisting Chief Public Defender Deborah Lawson in the case as co-council, and he appeared on her behalf for Thursday's arraignment.

A trial date in the case was scheduled Thursday for Feb. 9, while a pre-trial hearing was scheduled for Feb. 8 and a status hearing was set for Jan. 4.

Security in the courtroom was once again tight. Surber, shackled, wore a blue bulletproof vest, while Berkeley County Sheriff Kenneth "Kenny" Lemaster Jr. was among police and security officers in the courtroom.

Surber briefly addressed the court during the arraignment, informing Circuit Court Judge Christopher Wilkes Thursday that he no longer wished the court to consider his request to represent himself. The request was made via a letter received by the Berkeley County Circuit Clerk's Office on Oct. 1.

"Your honor, after talking with my family, I'd like to withdraw my motion," he said.

Surber also said he now wants Lawson and Adams to continue to represent him.

Wilkes had previously held off on ruling on the self-representation request until he could review a final report on a psychological evaluation conducted on Surber to determine his competency.

"I'm a little troubled that we haven't received that back," Wilkes said Thursday.

Neither Adams nor Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Pamela Games-Neely knew why the report on the evaluation was not yet complete.

"We don't understand why it has taken this long," Games-Neely said after the arraignment. "She's a very good forensic evaluator. It's just weird."

In light of the fact that the report has still not been completed, Wilkes ordered Thursday that Surber be evaluated by a different psychologist and psychiatrist so that a new report can be compiled to expedite the process. The evaluation will be conducted by Dr. Ralph Smith and Dr. Rosemary Smith in Charleston.

"Just get it done," he said.

Surber allegedly stabbed Sharp to death sometime during the standoff with police that began June 14, when he took Sharp and her daughter hostage at their home.

Sharp's daughter managed to escape the home and called police after Surber forced his way inside, but Sharp was found dead after police moved inside the house and took Surber into custody a day after the hostage situation developed.

The escape charge stems from Surber's alleged attempt to flee City Hospital's emergency room in Martinsburg on June 19 after he was taken there for self-inflicted cuts to his wrists. He was shot and wounded during the escape attempt after he allegedly tried to grab a correction officer's gun.

Adams said Thursday the defense will likely file a motion seeking to sever the charges, meaning they may request that Surber be tried separately on the escape-related charges and the charges related to the victim's murder.

Games-Neely said the state will likely oppose such a motion.

Adams also suggested the defense may seek to file a change-of-venue motion because of the high-profile nature of the case.

"We just want to bring it to the court's attention that it may be difficult to seat a jury in this case," he said.

It's extremely rare in Berkeley County for a change-of-venue motion to be granted. Games-Neely said she knows of only one such case in her entire career, and even then, a jury was brought in from a different county rather than moving the location of trial.

Surber will be returned to Tygart Valley Regional in Randolph County where he will be held without bail while awaiting future court proceedings. He is being held there because of security concerns at the Eastern Regional Jail.

If convicted, he faces up to life in prison on both the murder and kidnapping charges. West Virginia does not have the death penalty.


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