HUNTINGTON — A defendant is weighing a plea deal that would leave him behind bars for more than 100 years ahead of a murder trial set for next week after he was accused in 2017 of stabbing to death a man in his West Huntington home.
Ronald Amory Witherel, 42, is charged with murder and first-degree robbery in the July 19, 2017, slaying of David Ralph in the 800 block of Virginia Avenue in Huntington. The first-degree robbery charge stems from the theft of a chain from around a man’s neck nine days prior to Ralph’s slaying, according to police.
Cabell Circuit Judge Gregory Howard previously had ruled that the robbery and murder charge should be tried separately because Witherel had said he wanted to testify on his own behalf for the murder charge, but not the robbery.
He is scheduled to go to trial at 9 a.m. Feb. 20, and 45 potential jurors will be summoned. The trial is expected to last at least four days.
In the meantime, Witherel is considering a last-minute plea offer made by Wayne County Prosecutor Tom Plymale, who is specially assigned to the case, which calls for a plea to first-degree robbery and first-degree murder. At a hearing Tuesday, Plymale said the plea calls for Witherel to be sentenced to 120 years for the robbery and life for murder, but the sentences would run at the same time and he would be eligible for parole in 30 years.
If he turns down the plea and is found guilty at trial, Plymale said he could file a recidivist charge against Witherel, which could add another life sentence to the life with or without parole sentence he would face if found guilty of first-degree murder.
A recidivism charge allows prosecutors to put repeat violent offenders behind bars under West Virginia’s “three-strike rule.”
On the night of the homicide, Ralph’s live-in girlfriend told police she woke up after hearing a noise and saw Witherel, who had worked for the victim’s construction business, standing inside the home. He left and she tended to the victim, who later died. Ralph had suffered four injuries to his body, including one severe injury to his neck, most likely inflicted with a knife.
Witherel was also implicated by three individuals who said they drove him to the home the night of Ralph’s death and he returned to their car bloodied, stating a dog had bitten him.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the sides went over two final motions made ahead of trial.
The first motion, which had asked that the state not be allowed to bring up the robbery charge filed against Witherel, was granted after Plymale did not protest the request.
The second motion, in which the state asked that the defense not be able to bring up unidentified DNA, was denied.
Plymale said DNA found at the scene was tested but did not match the victim or the defendant. No other individuals, including those who pointed to Witherel as the assailant, were tested as matches, Plymale said, because law enforcement had no reason to suspect them.
“I’m not saying they can’t say, ‘Did you test other people?’ I think that’s a fair question you could ask any investigator,” he said. “But to suggest to the jury they should have, or it was their duty to test these specific people, without any evidence or statement otherwise, I think misleads the jury and would be an improper argument.”
Defense attorney Kerry Nessel said he could use that to show another person was inside the home at the time of the attack.
Howard sided with the defense and said Plymale could have their witnesses explain why no other individual was tested to see if they were a match.
Howard scheduled Witherel’s trial for the robbery charge to take place Aug. 25.