Judge rejects plea deal in Eagle River teen’s murder

Sunday, April 23, 2017 - 12:55
  • David Joseph Thomas, 30, at a sentencing hearing in Anchorage Superior Court April 20, 2017. Thomas had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for strangling 19-year-old Linda Anne Martz Bower in September 2014. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Alaska Superior Court Judge Kevin Saxby watches a memorial video of Linda Anne Martz Bower during a sentencing hearing for David Joseph Thomas April 20, 2017. Thomas had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for strangling Bower in September 2014. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

An Anchorage Superior Court judge on Thursday rejected a plea agreement in the case of David Joseph Thomas, a 30-year-old man who previously pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the death of Eagle River 19-year-old Linda Anne Martz Bower.

Judge Kevin Saxby said elements of the agreement — which would impose a sentence of 75 years with 25 suspended, leaving Thomas eligible for parole in 14 years – “cheapens the crime.”

Thomas was originally charged with first- and second-degree murder after Bower, his former girlfriend, was found strangled to death in the back of his car in September 2014. In December 2016, Thomas pleaded guilty to second-degree murder as part of a plea agreement attorneys said would bring “finality” to the case.

But Bower’s family members and friends vehemently opposed the plea deal. When Thomas’s sentencing hearing began April 13, they packed the Anchorage courtroom, taking turns standing before the judge to beg him to reject the sentence. They described the enormous breadth of their loss, the depth of their grief and their hunger for justice. Then the hearing ran out the clock, so they returned this week to do it all again.

Before the courtroom doors opened Thursday morning, more than two dozen of Bower’s loved ones filled the hallway outside. Her mother, Sherry Miller, carried a framed photo of her. Her stepfather, Bradley Miller, paced the floor, wearing black. Her brother flew up from Seattle to attend the hearing for the second week in a row.

Inside the courtroom, her father, Lonny Bower, made one final appeal to the judge. Linda was his first and only daughter, he said. She was invaluable from the moment of her birth. The last time he had the chance to hug her was Sept. 4, 2014.

Her life was worth everything, Bower said. He dreams of what she could have become. Because there is no death sentence in Alaska, Bower asked Saxby to imprison Thomas for as long as he possibly could.

“I only wish that we were in Texas,” he told the judge.

When Sherry Miller rose to speak, she addressed Saxby through tears, repeating her family’s plea.

“It is an injustice to my daughter, me and her family that David Thomas be considered for any parole whatsoever,” Miller told the judge. “I am aware of the harsh reality that nothing will ever bring my daughter back. But I plead with the court to give our family justice, and to give Linda justice. I implore the court to hold Mr. Thomas accountable for what he has done. I ask that you reconsider and reject this current plea.”

One of the next voices to fill the courtroom belonged to Linda Bower herself. In a video recording played for the court, she sang Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” as a photo slideshow played across the projection screen. There were photos of Bower as a baby. There was a photo of her smiling and cradling a snake; holding a butterfly; caressing another snake; clutching a puppy; jubilant at the Eagle River Nature Center.

Taylor Winston, director of the Alaska Office of Victim’s Rights, stood to speak on behalf of Bower’s family.

Then came Thomas’s chance to speak.

“I know if Linda’s death was at the hands of someone else, or if her death was one of my sisters or one of my nieces, I’d be demanding the most severe sentence possible. My shame, sorrow and guilt argue for the same,” he said, seated in front of the judge in handcuffs and a yellow prison uniform. “Still, there’s part of me – and you can call it selfishness – but I hope for the sentence outlined in the plea agreement.”

The many testimonies and facts of the case weighed heavy on Saxby’s mind.

“I’ve lost a lot of sleep over the past two weeks,” said the judge.

But the plea agreement didn’t sit right with him.

Explaining his decision to reject it, he said he viewed Thomas’s chances of rehabilitation as “dim.” The facts of the case could establish a first-degree murder charge, he said. Thomas’s history of domestic violence and previous encounters with the criminal justice system showed he was an ongoing danger to society, Saxby said.

Given the facts of the case, Winston said the judge’s decision was not surprising. Still, she said, things could have gone much differently.

“It’s not common to reject plea agreements,” she said in an interview after the hearing. “Generally, this is probably a little bit of an outlier.”

It was exactly what the family had been hoping for, they said. In the gallery, they gasped and sobbed and exchanged hugs when the judge delivered the news.

After Alaska State Troopers led Thomas out of the courtroom, the family filed out into the bright sunshine in the courtroom hallway. Lonny Bower said he was grateful for Saxby’s “level head and common sense.” He said his family was ready to take the next step toward justice.

The next pretrial conference in the case is scheduled for this summer.

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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