A Fallon man charged with murder and three other counts stemming from a July 2018 shooting pleaded not guilty Thursday in the Tenth District Court.
John O’Connor is charged with the murder of Charles E. “Bert” Miller at the Church of Latter-day Saints on West Richards Street. Both men attended the same church. After a preliminary hearing in December in the New River Township Justice Court, visiting Judge Jack Schroeder of Reno bound O’Connor to district court for arraignment.
Senior District Judge William A. Maddox presided over Thursday’s proceedings and read each count to O’Connor, who is represented by Reno attorney Richard Davies.
Before reading the four counts, Maddox asked if Davies was qualified to represent a client in a potential death penalty case.
“Judge (Thomas) Stockard vetted me when I came in on this case,” Davies answered.
Maddox moved on and asked Davies another question. Davies said he also reviewed the first amended information line by line with O’Connor.
Maddox read each count separately, reviewed the possible penalties and then asked O’Connor how he pleaded. The most serious charge is first-degree murder with the use of a firearm against victim 60 years of age or older and considered vulnerable. In this category A felony, O’Connor is charged with fatally shooting Miller multiple times with a 9-millimeter Beretta Px4 Storm handgun in the church’s chapel.
“The case would be presented to the jury, and they would decide what degree of murder you were guilty of,” Maddox explained. “If they found first-degree murder, we would go into a separate proceeding in which the state would present its aggravating circumstances.”
Maddox said at the conclusion of the trial, the jury would decide which penalty O’Connor would receive. He said a defendant could be charged with death, life in prison with no parole, parole eligibility after serving a minimum of 20 years in prison or an indefinite term of 50 years in prison with parole possibly granted after 20 years.
“I’m advising you of the maximum penalties you would receive,” Maddox said.
Because of enhancements, such as the victim was 60 years of age and older or a weapon was used in the commission of the crime, any additional sentencing would run consecutively.
The second count is battery with a deadly weapon, a category B felony. O’Connor allegedly shot Duane Miller, Bert Miller’s brother, with a handgun causing prolonged physical pain. Duane Miller said O’Connor had a handgun inches from his brother and fired seven or eight shots.
Maddox said the second count carries a penalty of two to 15 years in the state prison with a fine not to exceed $10,000, but he said enhancements would extend the sentence.
The third count is assault with a deadly weapon, a category B felony. O’Connor allegedly aimed the handgun at a member of the same church, Mike Whitaker. Maddox said if found guilty, O’Connor could receive a sentence of one to six years and a fine not to exceed $5,000.
The fourth count charges O’Connor having a concealed weapon without a permit. If found guilty, he could receive a sentence up to five years.
Once Maddox finished reading each count, he asked O’Connor if he understood the charges. O’Connor replied in the affirmative. The judge asked O’Connor how he pleaded to each count, and O’Connor responded not guilty to each one.
The tentative trial that will cover one month was also set from March 1 to April 2, 2021. Maddox also advised Davies and O’Connnor the state, in this case the Churchill County District Attorney’s office, intends to seek the death penalty.
Maddox said if the verdict comes back from the jury declaring-degree murder, then the proceedings go into a penalty stage.
Maddox asked if O’Connor’s attorney will be filing a change of venue, and Davies said he plans on it. Maddox though, said before the trial starts, the court will draw 100 potential jurors, 200 on the second day and 300 on the third. If the court can’t find a jury after 300 names have been drawn, then the judge said he would consider a change. Maddox, though, said in his decades of serving as a judge, he has never ruled on changing a venue.