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Virginia slaying suspect has previous murder conviction

John Edward Isham was just 16 years old when, against the advice of his own attorney, he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and accepted a nine-year prison sentence.

The plea agreement allowed him to shave a few years off the guideline sentence, but Isham was still given a stern warning by District Court Judge Charles Barnes.

“You’re young,” Barnes said, according to a 1992 News Tribune account of the sentencing hearing. “You’ll be out when you’re 21, plenty of time to get your life squared away — if you want to.”

More than two decades later, Isham again faces second-degree murder charges. He’s one of three men charged in the April 27 killing of 28-year-old Harley Jacka in Virginia.

Isham, 38, has accumulated a lengthy rap sheet since that murder conviction in 1992. He’s been charged and convicted of numerous assaults, a handful of thefts and a series of DWIs, among other cases, mostly in St. Louis County.

He’s currently being held at the St. Louis County Jail on a probation violation and a warrant on the murder charge. He has yet to make a court appearance.

Bail was set at $1 million Monday for Isham’s co-defendants, Anthony James Isham, 42, and Bartholamy Jake Drift, 39. They’re expected back in court next Monday. John Isham and Anthony Isham are cousins, according to information provided to the Virginia Police Department.

It was a bizarre series of events that led to John Isham’s 1992 murder conviction.

Daniel J. O’Keefe, 49, called Duluth police on July 24, 1991, to report that he had been assaulted by two boys near Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue East. He appeared to be in good shape but had some blood on the back of his shirt. Police photographed a small wound on his back, but O’Keefe declined medical treatment.

The next day, he was found dead in his apartment above the Pioneer Bar in downtown Duluth. The St. Louis County medical examiner determined that the wound in O’Keefe’s back was from a knife, and that he had died from internal bleeding.

Isham was arrested several months later and charged with the crime. Another teen was also interviewed but not charged. Just 15 at the time, Isham was certified to be tried as an adult because of his criminal history and the severity of the charge.

In August 1992, Isham opted to accept a plea agreement that called for 110 months in prison, a more lenient sentence than the 150 months he faced under state guidelines.

Defense attorney John Lind noted at the time that he urged Isham to take the case to trial. He said he informed Isham that he could argue that Duluth police were negligent by not taking O’Keefe to the hospital, or claim the other teen was responsible for the stabbing.

 “We disagree,” Lind told the court at the time. “He wants to go ahead with this (plea). I was prepared to go to trial, but he is not heeding my objections.”

In entering his plea, Isham told the court that he and the other youth needed $7 to buy beer, so they tried to rob O’Keefe to get it. He said a fight ensued when O’Keefe began making racially derogatory remarks.

“He told us we were the ones who made Indians look bad,” Isham said, according to a 1992 newspaper story. “He started hitting me. I hit him back.”

But Isham claimed the stabbing was an accident — a claim that authorities disputed.

“I was hitting him with the knife and the top fell off,” Isham said at the plea hearing.

Judge Barnes accepted the plea agreement. With good behavior and credit for time served, Isham was freed from prison in the late 1990s.

In the recent homicide, authorities say there is again some uncertainty about events. The three men have all given different accounts of the killing, placing blame on one another.

Anthony Isham claimed to be asleep, waking up to find Jacka dead, with John Isham and Drift covered in blood. Drift also claimed he was asleep, waking up to find Jacka covered in blood. He said Anthony Isham had a knife and John Isham admitted to beating Jacka.

Police said Jacka was stabbed 15 times in the head, neck and chest. John Isham told police that he left the apartment after Jacka had left, and only Anthony Isham and Drift were in the apartment at the time, according to the complaint.

John Isham later told his mother and brother that Anthony Isham had “killed a white guy,” according to the criminal complaint.