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Published: Thursday, 1/27/2011

Toledo man, 25, pleads guilty in stabbing death of UT student

Saying he was compelled by a series of dreams, Lawrence Fitzgerald James admitted Wednesday he killed a University of Toledo student when he approached him outside a coffee shop and stabbed him once with a knife.

"I had vivid dreams. … I was thinking I had to sacrifice his life for the future," James said Wednesday in Lucas County Common Pleas Court. "…I went to him and stabbed him. Then I walked home, colored in my coloring book, and went to sleep."

During a lengthy hearing Wednesday, James, 25, pleaded guilty to murder for the July 18 stabbing of Casey Bucher. He faces life in prison when sentenced Thursday by Judge Ruth Ann Franks.

In response to questions posed by Judge Franks, James acknowledged following Mr. Bucher, a UT sophomore, who was leaving Maxwell's Brew at Bancroft Street and Westwood Avenue at about 8 p.m. The 22-year-old man died from a single stab would through the heart.

"I just did it and walked away," James said.

"…You stabbed him and it pierced his heart," the judge said, adding the question, "You killed him?"

"Yes ma'am."

In November, Judge Franks found James competent to stand trial for murder, using three independent evaluations as guidance.

In one of those reports dated Nov. 5, the psychologist said he believed James "attempted to appear significantly more impaired and disturbed than he actually is" and that "he is capable of being more open than he has shown."

James was observed for several weeks in the Northwest Ohio Psychiatric Hospital, where he received the second of his evaluations.

Despite James' words that he was prompted by dreams, authorities said in all other interactions, including a recorded confession, James never spoke of dreams.

Instead, authorities said that James admitted to police that he approached Mr. Bucher asking for cigarettes and change and when the victim refused, James stabbed him.

"There's no question that every psychologist and psychiatrist … was concerned about his malingering -- that he exaggerated the problems he was having psychologically and that he was exaggerating the problems he would have without medications," Assistant County Prosecutor Andy Lastra said after the plea.

"The whole story about a dream, that was never heard before," he added. "…I think he thought about it because he has been thinking about this plea [for several days.]"

Mr. Lastra said in court in exchange for James admitting his guilt, the prosecutor's office would not seek additional indictments for aggravated robbery and tampering with evidence.

When sentenced for murder, James will be sent to prison for life with parole eligibility after 15 years. Attorney Adrian Cimerman, who was appointed to represent James, said the plea was in his client's best interest because it saved him from the possibility of additional charges. Additionally, Mr. Cimerman acknowledged that the evidence in the case was "overwhelming."

Noting that police had witnesses, videotapes, a confession, and DNA, as well as evidence James wiped down the murder weapon with alcohol, Mr. Cimerman said there was a "real possibility" of James having to serve additional years before parole eligibility.

Judge Franks outlined each constitutional right James waived with a guilty plea and stopped numerous times to ensure he understood. At one point during the plea, James said he wanted to go to trial on the case.

After conferring with his attorney, James told the judge that he did, in fact, want to plead guilty to the charge of murder. He then explained to the judge that he had asked for a trial because he believed he was being accused of robbing Mr. Bucher.

"The reason why I said I wanted to go to trial, I never robbed him," he said.

Before accepting his plea, Judge Franks not only explained to James his constitutional rights, but she attempted to make sure he understood what sort of sentence he faced.

She told James there were no guarantees he would be granted parole, and so he should assume he would spend the rest of his life in prison.

"Presume, Mr. James, that you will die in the penitentiary, that you will never get out," the judge said. "Presuming that you will live the rest of your life in the state penitentiary, do you still maintain your guilty plea?"

"Yes ma'am," he responded.

Surrounded by friends and family, Mr. Bucher's mother watched the proceedings Wednesday, often showing tearful emotion. She declined to comment after the plea.

Toledo Police Detective Bob Schroeder, who investigated the case, said after the plea that he was pleased that James admitted guilt. He noted that Mr. Bucher was doing everything right by working and going to school, and called the incident a "huge tragedy."

Wednesday, James admitted he was on post-release control, known as parole, at the time he stabbed Mr. Bucher. According to court records, James was released June 6 after spending two years in prison in 2008 for committing a similar assault in which he stabbed a gas station employee after asking for change.

In that case, the victim, Zachary Molitoris, was stabbed once in the back on April 15, 2008, and survived. Mr. Molitoris told James he didn't have the money, which apparently prompted the assault.

Initially charged with two alternate counts of felonious assault, James pleaded no contest to attempted felonious assault.

Judge Franks told James because he was given post-release control for one year, he would be found in violation and so be sentenced to one year in prison.

She notified him that his sentence would then become 16 years to life in prison.

In 2008, at the request of his court-appointed attorney, James underwent three evaluations and was found competent to stand trial for the previous stabbing and was not eligible for a not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity plea.

Wednesday, Mr. Cimerman said James' comments in court were consistent with what evaluators recently and in 2008 found.

"Nobody who examined him has denied that he was mentally ill," Mr. Cimerman said. "But that's not to say he's not competent to stand trial."

Contact Erica Blake at: eblake@theblade.com or 419-213-2134.



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