Two of the three convicted murderers in Ward Weaver III's family are getting potential breaks from the criminal justice system.
Not Weaver himself, who is still serving two concurrent sentences of life without parole after being convicted of murdering two Oregon City girls in 2004.
But in September 2020, the Oregon Supreme Court overturned the murder conviction of the man he raised as his son, Francis Weaver. The court ruled a plea bargain agreement struck with a co-defendant by Clackamas County prosecutors violated the younger Weaver's constitutional rights. Although still imprisoned, Francis is scheduled for a new trial this fall.
And Weaver's father, Ward Weaver Jr., soon could be released from death row at San Quentin State Prison in California. Because of a ballot measure approved by California voters, he could be released into the general prison population, despite being convicted of two murders in 1985 — and suspected of many more. He was a long-haul truck driver along a route where dozens of still-unsolved murders were discovered.
"It's particularly unfortunate in (the father) Weaver's case because he offered, prior to his trial, to clear some two dozen unsolved homicides — most of them involving hitchhikers — in exchange for life in prison," said Janine Robben, a former Clackamas County prosecutor and Portland Tribune reporter whose book on the Weaver family, "Close to Home," is due out later this year.
"The prosecutor on the case told me that his boss — Kern County District Attorney Ed Jagels — rejected the offer because he didn't want to reward Weaver for having committed more crimes than the two murders for which he was facing trial. Since then, California taxpayers have paid many hundreds of thousands of dollars as the case has ground through more than 35 years of attempts by Weaver to get his convictions overturned in state and federal court," Robben said.
Plea bargain leads to new trial
Ward Weaver III, now 57, burst into public prominence on July 2, 2002, when the Portland Tribune reported that he considered himself the prime suspect in the disappearances of Ashley Pond and Miranda Gaddis. Ashley vanished on Jan. 9 and Miranda disappeared on March 8. Both were friends with Weaver's daughter, Mallori, and Ashley had once lived at their house.
At the time, Weaver III said one reason he was the prime suspect was because of his father. He had been convicted of killing a man and woman near Bakersfield in 1981 and was on death row.
Despite Weaver III's admission and subsequent intensive press focus, he was not arrested until Aug. 13, 2002, after Francis told police that his father had confessed to killing the two missing girls. Investigators found their bodies on Weaver's property on Aug. 24 and 25. During the investigation, DNA testing revealed that Francis was not in fact Ward's son, although neither knew it until then.
Weaver III pleaded guilty and no contest to multiple crimes, including aggravated murder, in girls' deaths, in September 2004. He received two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Although he turned his father in, Francis, now 39, had his own troubles with the law, both before and after that. In 1999, he shot a rifle into a truckload of teens, injuring his best friend, in Shoshone, Idaho. He was charged with aggravated assault, a felony, and served several weeks in a juvenile detention facility.
In August 2005, Francis was convicted of manufacturing or delivering a Schedule 1 controlled substance in Clatsop County. A week later, a Multnomah County jury acquitted him and a friend of robbery and burglary in an incident at a Southeast Portland house. Prosecutors had accused them of working with another man to hold two people hostage and to rob them.
Nine years later, in February 2014, Francis and three other people were arrested and charged with the murder of a Grants Pass man in Canby, where they were living. The arrest, trial and conviction were widely covered because of Francis' connection to the other two murderers in the family, especially Weaver III. The case was reported as a drug deal gone bad. One of the co-defendants, Michael Orren, was accused of shooting and killing a marijuana dealer during a botched transaction set up by Weaver.
Unreported at the time was the fact that the Clackamas County District Attorney struck a plea bargain agreement with Orren that strongly discouraged him from cooperating with Francis' attorneys or testifying on his behalf. The agreement said the DA would recommend a sentence of possible parole after 30 years in prison if he complied with the agreement. But the DA could recommend the death penalty if he broke it.
Francis' attorneys wanted to call Orren as a witness during the trial, but the judge denied the request after being told he would only evoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, as required by the agreement. Francis' attorneys tried to enter the agreement into evidence, but the judge denied the request, too.
Francis was convicted of murder and firearm charges on March, 11, 2016, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. His attorneys appealed the verdict, arguing that his constitutional right to defend himself had been violated. The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the conviction on March 6, 2019. But the Oregon Supreme Court disagreed, ruling the plea bargain agreement violated Article 1, Section 11 of the Oregon Constitution, which sets forth the rights of the accused in criminal prosecutions.
"The state wields substantial power in the plea-bargaining process, and never more than when it can credibly threaten a sentence of death. In this case, the state used that power to forbid a key defense witness from testifying on behalf of the defendant. It also prevented the jury from even learning that the witness had entered into a plea bargain where, in exchange for the state agreeing not to pursue the death penalty, the witness was precluded from testifying for defendant or cooperating with him in any way," the supreme court ruled when it reversed Francis' conviction and remanded the case to Clackamas County Circuit Court.
A new trial is scheduled to start at the Clackamas County Courthouse on Oct. 19 and could last three weeks.
It is unclear what Francis and his attorneys expect Orren to say if he is called to testify. Prosecutors accused Francis of giving him the gun used in the killing. During the first trial, Francis testified he had secretly conspired with the man who was killed to fake the theft of his marijuana.
"The hammer that prosecutors held over Orren's head if he testified at Francis Weaver's trial, or even if he cooperated with Weaver's attorneys' 'in any way,' appears to be gone now," Robben said. "He's already been sentenced pursuant to the deal he was offered via the plea agreement: life with the possibility of parole after 30 years."
Victim's bother appalled by potential transfer
In the meantime, the Bakersfield Californian newspaper reports that Ward Weaver Jr., now 77, could be released from death row under a Condemned Inmate Transfer Pilot Program that was expected to take effect the end of March.
"The two-year pilot program will allow eligible condemned inmates at San Quentin State Prison to voluntarily transfer to one of the designated institutions consistent with their case factors and security level. The program could benefit condemned inmates not only with more freedom and a change of scenery, but provide an opportunity to participate in rehabilitation and work programs," said the Feb. 24 article.
The program is a result of Proposition 66, which was intended to speed up death penalty appeals and passed by Californian voters in November 2016. All condemned inmates may be eligible for the program, unless they are currently serving a "segregated housing unit term, or equivalent," or have pending or have been found guilty of serious violations in the last five years.
Weaver Jr. was convicted of killing Barbara Levoy and her boyfriend, Robert Radford, after they were stranded along Highway 58 east of Tehachapi, California, in 1981. Weaver beat Radford to death on the spot. He kidnapped, raped and sodomized Lavoy before killing her and burying her body at his home. He was already in prison on other rape and murder-related charges when he was arrested and convicted for Levoy's and Radford's deaths in 1982.
Levoy's brother, Bob, said he is appalled by the possibility of the transfer.
"I saw the story (about California's death row inmates) and I'm p**** off. This guy's supposed to be dead by now," Bob Levoy said in the article. "Now to say that this murderer is going to be allowed to go to a rehabilitation program and be treated like any other low-grade inmate is a slap to the face."
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