WILKES-BARRE – Determination paid off for admitted gunman Claude Johnston.
Johnston, 38, thought his 24-to-72-year sentence on charges he opened fire inside the now-defunct White House Cafe in 2005 was excessive, so he fought the prison term given to him by then-presiding Judge Mark Ciavarella, who now is a convicted felon.
On Thursday, county Judge Fred Pierantoni agreed and sentenced Johnston to 7 to 14 years in prison. He will be freed in two years after receiving credit for time served.
He first pleaded guilty in December 2005 and received the much heavier sentence from Ciavarella. That plea was withdrawn in August. Early this month, Johnston pleaded guilty again.
But, that plea was withdrawn Thursday and another entered after a credit for time served issue.
“I apologize for my actions,” Johnston, whose last known address was Elk Lane, Wilkes-Barre.
Johnston contended his original sentence was excessive and errors were made at the time of his guilty plea, and after appeals and other post-conviction hearings, Pierantoni last month allowed Johnston to withdraw his guilty plea and start over.
In 2011, a federal jury in Scranton found Ciavarella guilty of corruption charges. He is serving a 28-year prison sentence for accepting kickbacks from the developer of a juvenile detention center.
Pierantoni ruled in July Johnston would be permitted to withdraw his plea because, at the time of his original plea, there was no discussion of possible sentences and fines, no basis for the charges was put on the record and Johnston’s former attorney failed to raise an issue to challenge that Johnston understood the plea.
Johnston and his co-defendant, Rasha Wimms, 35, were charged after the March 2005 shooting. Police said the two men, their faces covered by bandanas, stormed into the Hazle Avenue bar and opened fire.
Police said Crystal Crawford and Steven McClean, of Wilkes-Barre, and Naquan Knight, of New York, were hit. They were all treated at area hospitals and later released. The White House Cafe has since closed. Johnston also argued Wimms received a significantly lesser sentence, 10 to 20 years.
At the time of Wimms’ sentencing, prosecutors said Johnston received the more severe sentence because none of Wimms’ bullets struck anyone and Johnston had a prior record. Attorneys also said the shooting appeared to be related to drug trafficking.
Earlier this month, Johnston entered the guilty plea with the understanding he would get seven years credit for time served.
His attorney, Hugh Taylor, said Thursday after receiving information from a pre-sentence investigation he and Assistant District Attorney Tom Hogans became aware Johnston would receive only 2,058 days credit, or 5 1/2 years.
Johnston had served two years in a federal prison that could not be added to his credit, Taylor said, and a plea deal to three counts of aggravated assault and one count of a firearms charge was struck.
Taylor said that since his clients has served nearly 8 1/2 in prison, his two children have grown into their teens and Johnston has a new respect for the law.
Taylor said that when Johnston is released from prison he believes he’ll be a law-abiding and productive member of society.
Pierantoni, who sentenced Johnston, said he must not have contact with any of the victims and must undergo a mental-health, drug-and-alcohol and anger-management evaluation, and follow any recommendations and treatment.