An Alabama jail escapee originally charged with the April 2005 murder of a Freestone County man has pled guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for testifying against his co-defendant.

On Wednesday afternoon, James Harnage pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of aggravated robbery at the Anderson County Courthouse before 87th State District Judge Deborah Oakes Evans.

As part of his plea agreement with the state, Harnage will testify in the upcoming capital murder trial of his co-defendant, Oscar Roy Doster, at the Freestone County Courthouse in Fairfield.

Jury selection in Doster’s capital murder trial will begin Monday in Fairfield, and the process of seating a 12-person jury and four alternates could take up to four weeks.

A total of 350 persons have been called as potential jurors in the case.

In addition to individual questioning, each potential juror will be required to fill out an extensive questionnaire, all of which will take several days to process.

Presentation of evidence and testimony in the case is expected to begin Sept. 7 in Fairfield.

The murder charge against Doster was initially dismissed in January 2009 after the 10th Court of Appeals voted, 2-1, that the federal Interstate Agreement on Detainers (IADA) was violated when the Alabama man was not tried on the murder charge within 120 days of being extradited to Texas.

This past March, however, the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals denied that claim.

In exchange for Harnage’s testimony in Doster’s upcoming capital murder trial, the state and defendant agreed to a 40-year sentence on the lesser-included offense of aggravated robbery.

Doster and Harnage, a pair of Alabama jail escapees, were arrested in late April 2005 in California and Nevada, respectively, and charged with the Freestone County murder of 56-year-old Dennis Courtney, approximately two weeks after the man had been discovered shot in the back on his ranch off of U.S. 79, approximately 1 1/2 miles east of Oakwood.

Courtney, who was found dead on the morning of April 7, 2005, one day after his wife had reported him missing, also had been struck in the head with a hammer, according to Freestone County sheriff’s authorities.

A one-ton Ford pickup, a four-wheeler and firearms were among the items missing from Courtney’s property, authorities have said.

Doster, who was awaiting trial on an Alabama murder charge at the time, and Harnage were among three inmates who escaped from the Covington County Jail in Andalusia, Ala., approximately 80 miles northeast of Pensacola, Fla., on March 31, 2005.

After escaping from the Alabama county facility, authorities have said Doster and the two other men stole a car from a local funeral home and fled the state.

The stolen car was later found in Tennessee, and Courtney was murdered one week after their escape.

Doster was arrested on April 14, 2005 by California authorities near Bakersfield, Calif. after being involved in a four-wheeler accident, according to authorities.

California authorities initially were able to determine Doster was a jail escapee out of Alabama, but were unable to link him to the Freestone County murder until six days later when the four-wheeler was recovered and a check revealed it had been stolen from the property of a murdered Texas man.

Harnage, meanwhile, was arrested at a private residence in Las Vegas on April 21, 2005 after Courtney’s one-ton Ford pickup bearing Texas license plates was found parked in the driveway, authorities have said.

Doster’s 2005 escape was his second from the Covington County Jail. He also allegedly committed murder during his first brief stint with freedom, authorities have said.

During the early morning hours of Nov. 4, 2002, Doster and three other inmates escaped from the jail through a ventilation system. Two days later, Paul D. LeMaster of Gantt, Ala. was shot to death, with Doster and another man were ultimately charged with his murder.

Doster and one of the other escapees was captured and arrested two weeks later in the West Texas town of Ozona.

Doster has been sentenced to die by lethal injection for LeMaster’s murder.

Harnage is currently serving a life prison sentence in Alabama after pleading guilty to escape in the April 2005 jail break.

During Wednesday’s proceeding, Harnage told the court that he participated in the theft of property, but did not directly participate in Courtney’s murder.

Although the offense occurred in Freestone County, Harnage’s plea was accepted by Evans in Palestine on Wednesday since the jurist also sits in Anderson County.

Harnish was represented Wednesday by local attorney Stephen Evans and Dallas attorney Lalon Peale.

The state, meanwhile, was represented during Wednesday’s hearing by Freestone County District Attorney Chris Martin and Wesley Mau and Nancy Nemer of the attorney general’s criminal prosecution unit.

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Paul Stone may be contacted via e-mail at pstone@palestineherald.com

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