After hearing tearful pleas for mercy and equally emotional appeals for a stiff sentence, a Mercer County Circuit court judge sentenced a woman who pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the March 2013 shooting death of a Bluefield woman to more than seven years in prison.
Judith Helen Kowaleski-Slagle, 43, of Bluefield, appeared Monday morning for sentencing before Circuit Court Judge William Sadler. She pleaded guilty on Jan. 13 to voluntary manslaughter in connection with the March 28, 2013, shooting death of Elizabeth Slagle, 42, of Bluefield.
Since the time of the shooting, Kowaleski-Slagle married the brother-in-law of the victim, Chief Assistant Prosecuting Attorney George Sitler said after the plea hearing. The couple was dating at the time of the shooting.
Investigators said at the time of the arrest that Kowaleski-Slagle and Slagle had exchanged heated telephone calls and text messages for hours after an altercation between their children aboard a school bus. Trooper J.C. Teubert of the West Virginia State Police, Princeton detachment said during an earlier preliminary hearing for Kowaleski-Slagle that when he arrived on the scene two women were kneeling by a third woman who was lying on her back. Kowaleski-Slagle was attempting to give the fallen woman CPR and use her shirt to stop the bleeding.
Before sentencing Kowaleski-Slagle, Sadler gave both her family and the family of Elizabeth Slagle the opportunity to speak. Slagle’s sister, Connie Payne, told the court how the tragedy has harmed her family.
“She made a choice to hurt my sister,” Payne said. “She didn’t just take the life of Elizabeth Slagle, but she also took a big part of the life of our family.”
“I stand before you broken hearted,” another Slagle sister, Glenda Thornsbury, said. “Today is the last time I can speak out for her. There is no way this pain will go away. It took a piece of my life, too. There was no reason to have a loaded gun, but you chose to bring one.” Slagle’s daughter saw her mother shot and killed. “Seeing her mother murdered like that will leave emotional scars for the rest of her life. Another time, she looked up to the sky and said, ‘Look at me, Mommy. I’m as big as you!’”
In each case, Elizabeth Slagle’s family asked Sadler to impose the maximum sentence. Many members of the family were wearing white T-shirts bearing Elizabeth Slagle’s picture.
Members of Kowaleski-Slagle’s family then addressed the court and asked the court for mercy on her behalf. A letter from her mother, Judy Lambert, was read in court. She called the incident “a tragic accident.”
“I know my daughter would never hurt anybody on purpose,” she said in the letter. “She is a God-fearing person. I ask for mercy for her, also for her family, daughter and grandson.”
One of Kowaleski-Slagle’s daughters, Brittany Kowaleski, said her mother helped care for her son so she could continue her education.
“She has to live with the guilt the rest of her life,” her daughter said.
Kowalesk-Slagle’s attorney, Ryan Flanigan, asked Judge Sadler to consider the approximately 355 days his client has spent in jail and in home confinement, her continuing physical and mental health needs, and the more than 50 letters the court has received from friends and family asking for leniency.
Kowaleski-Slagle, who frequently had to wipe away tears, then addressed the court. “There are not enough words in the world to express my sorrow,” she said. “There are so many things I wish I had done differently.”
Kowaleski-Slagle then said she felt she was “fighting for my life” the evening of March 28, 2013. “She put something to my throat and the gun went off accidentally.”
“I cannot ask them to forgive me when I cannot forgive myself. This is something I cannot get over, and I don’t expect Elizabeth’s family to get over it, either,” she said, pausing to cry. “I cannot stress how sorry I am. I wish I could change everything. I tried to fight for my life...I took off my shirt to try to stop the bleeding.”
Sadler told both families that determining a fair sentence in this case was difficult. The case should be a cautionary tale of what people should not do when they become angry at each other, he said.
Sadler emphasized that the daughters who had fought on the school bus were not to blame for the tragedy. “They should not carry guilt. As far as the court is concerned, they should not carry guilt,” he said.
Sadler sentenced Kowaleski-Slagle to a term of seven years and six months in prison. She received credit for her time in jail and home confinement. The judge said the plea agreement could not be considered lenient; a jury could have found her guilty of first-degree murder, or found her not guilty on any charges, he added.
Kowaleski-Slagle was until Friday morning to report to the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department so she would be able to attend the funeral of her father, who passed away Sunday. She will then be taken to the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver to await transport to a state prison.
Slagle’s sister, Glenda Thornsbury, said she was satisfied with the verdict.
“I know she going to get some prison time, but it will never be enough for me. If they gave her 20 years, it will never be enough, and I will never forgive that woman,” she said.