HIBBING — A Hibbing murder defendant on Thursday fired his attorney and indicated he would seek to back out of a plea agreement that has him cooperating with the prosecution of two co-defendants.

Anthony Emerson Howson, 21, told Judge Mark Starr that he wished to discharge the services of public defender Todd Deal. He said he and his family are seeking a private attorney, but did not have one retained as of the time of his appearance.

Howson in February pleaded guilty to intentional second-degree murder in connection with the January death of 33-year-old Joshua Robert Lavalley of Aurora along the Mesabi Trail in Hibbing. At that time, he agreed to cooperate in the still-pending cases of co-defendants Deshon Israel Bonnell and Bailey Bodell French.

The plea agreement stipulated that Howson would receive a guideline sentence of 25 ½ years in prison, but a formal sentencing date has been held off as the other cases continue.

"My family and I are working on getting a private attorney and taking back my plea agreement and getting a trial," Howson told Starr on Thursday. He first made the request in two handwritten letters mailed last month from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud, where he has been temporarily committed pending sentencing.

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Starr strongly cautioned Howson against discharging the public defender's office without first having another attorney in place, but noted he has the right to do so. If he is unable to secure another attorney, Howson would need to proceed on his own without another public defender appointment, the judge said.

Bonnell, 18, and French, 17, were both indicted by a grand jury on first-degree murder charges that carry mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole, if convicted. If Howson is allowed to withdraw from the plea agreement — which is not an absolute right — he may also be brought before a grand jury.

"The court doesn't think it's in Mr. Howson's best interests, but if that's what you want to do, that's your right," Starr said of Howson's request to discharge Deal.

Howson testified at his Feb. 22 plea hearing that Bonnell carried a gun and talked of a plan to kill Lavalley in retaliation for his behavior toward his girlfriend, French. He said the four of them spent the day together Jan. 5.

Howson testified that he eventually drove the victim's roommate's car out to the Kerr area, on the western side of Hibbing, in the early morning hours of Jan. 6. He said he waited with the car while Bonnell and French placed a bandana around Lavalley's face and led him down the trail.

Lavalley's body was discovered by a snowmobiler later that day with two gunshot wounds to the face, according to court documents. He had no wallet or identification, so investigators had to use fingerprints to identify the body.

In the subsequent investigation, Howson and French both allegedly confirmed the circumstances of Lavalley's death. French, according to court documents, told police that Bonnell fired the two shots.

While French and Bonnell were indicted on charges of premeditated first-degree murder and first-degree murder while committing kidnapping, Howson was spared that fate in exchange for his cooperation agreement. His attempt to back out of that deal comes with Bonnell set to stand trial on Oct. 21.

A scheduled hearing Thursday for French was postponed to Nov. 14, with defense attorney Kimberly Corradi indicating she was still receiving investigative reports and need additional time before determining how to proceed.

The cases are being prosecuted by Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Bonnie Norlander.