In late 2019, a Virginia Beach Circuit Court judge asked accused hitman Richard Stoner if he was pleading guilty because he was, in fact, guilty.
"I am, yes sir," Stoner told Judge Steven Frucci.
The judge then agreed to accept the then 44-year-old man's pleas to multiple charges, including capital murder, murder for hire and two counts of first-degree murder.
The charges stemmed from the 2004 shooting deaths of Lois Schmidt and her 7-year-old son, Jonathan Vetrano, who were gunned down in their Virginia Beach home. The case remained cold until 2018, when investigators said they'd obtained a confession from Stoner.
Stoner allegedly told them he was hired to kill Lois Schmidt by her ex-husband, Christopher Schmidt. He said he ended up killing the boy, too, to spare him from living with the trauma of seeing his mother murdered. Jonathan was Lois Schmidt's son from a previous marriage.
In exchange for Stoner's guilty pleas - and willingness to testify against the man who hired him - prosecutors promised not to seek the death penalty against him.
But when capital punishment was abolished in Virginia earlier this summer, the validity of the deal was suddenly thrown into question.
Stoner's attorney, Matthew Morris, recently filed a motion asking that Stoner be allowed to withdraw his plea now that the death penalty is no longer a factor. Frucci granted the request during a hearing Wednesday, saying the change in law meant the agreement was no longer binding.
That decision has now thrown the case against Christopher Schmidt into disarray because Stoner is reportedly refusing to cooperate with prosecutors, and has said he plans to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination if called to testify.
Without his testimony, the prosecution's case falls apart, Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Janee Joslin told Circuit Court Judge James Lewis during a hearing held immediately after the one in which Stoner was allowed to withdraw his plea.
"This (Stoner's testimony) is such a huge, huge, huge part of the commonwealth's case," Joslin told the judge. "Without it, we can't go forward."
Joslin asked Lewis to allow prosecutors to instead present transcripts of testimony Stoner provided at a 2018 preliminary hearing at Schmidt's trial, scheduled to begin Sept. 27, now that Stoner is "unavailable" to testify. Stoner admitted to the killings at the preliminary hearing and said he'd been hired by Schmidt.
Lewis, however, questioned whether it was correct to say Stoner isn't available. He also questioned whether Stoner had the right to invoke the Fifth Amendment since he's previously testified about his involvement in the case.
Lewis suggested prosecutors should just go forward with the trial, call Stoner to the stand, and see what happens.
But Joslin argued that puts their case at risk because they would have to end the trial if Stoner didn't cooperate. They wouldn't be able to try it again because of the double jeopardy rule that prevents prosecutors from trying someone twice for the same crime.
Lewis then agreed to continue the hearing until Friday so that Stoner can be brought to court and questioned so they can determine what he plans to say when called to testify. The judge is expected to make his ruling afterward.
Jane Harper, 757-222-5097, email@example.com