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Ex-fugitive Freshwater pleads guilty to '66 murder

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A woman who escaped from a Tennessee prison and lived under an alias for 32 years before being captured could be granted her freedom in the next few days, her attorney says, after she reached a plea agreement with prosecutors while awaiting a retrial.

Margo Freshwater entered a "best interest" guilty plea in a Memphis court Friday in the 1966 shooting death of liquor store clerk Hillman Robbins. She was sentenced to 25 years in prison after entering the plea, which sets aside her previous conviction, credits her for time served and allows her to maintain her innocence.

Freshwater was convicted of first-degree murder in 1969 and sentenced to 99 years. One year later, she scaled a wall with a fellow prisoner, outran the guards and escaped from the Tennessee Prison for Women.

She returned to prison in 2002 after she was found in Columbus, Ohio, living quietly under the alias Tonya McCartor with a husband, three children and a grandchild.

She was granted a new trial in May by the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which ruled that prosecutors withheld vital evidence in her case. She was moved from the Nashville prison to a Shelby County jail earlier this month to await her new trial.

After state prison officials receive a judgment order from the court, they will determine how much more time Freshwater will serve, Tennessee Department of Corrections spokeswoman Dorinda Carter said. With credit for good behavior, Freshwater's 25-year sentence would expire in 13 years and seven months, Carter told The Associated Press.

However, Freshwater's lawyer, Stephen Ross Johnson, said he expects Freshwater to be released in the next few days, allowing her to return to relatives in Ohio.

"They're relieved that this ordeal is close to being over," Johnson said after the hearing.

Freshwater was an 18-year-old high school dropout in 1966 when she had an affair with attorney Glen Nash, who was 20 years her senior, according to prosecutors. The two embarked on a three-week robbery and killing spree in Tennessee, Mississippi and Florida that left one person dead in each state, authorities said.

Robbins was found dead in a back room of the Memphis-area liquor store with his hands tied behind him and five bullet holes in the back of his head and neck. Bullets from two different guns were found.

Freshwater testified at her trial she did not kill anyone but did what Nash told her because he threatened to kill her.

Nash was judged insane by courts in all three states and was confined to psychiatric hospitals until 1983.

Freshwater escaped prison in October 1970. When she was caught in a hotel parking lot in Columbus in May 2002, investigators found she had worked a variety of jobs and had lived in several central Ohio cities.

Freshwater apparently never changed her appearance or contacted relatives. She registered to vote, entered ballroom dancing competitions, was licensed to sell insurance and learned to drive a tractor-trailer. Her husband described her as a loving mother and grandmother.

After her return to prison, Freshwater was ordered by a judge to serve the remainder of her murder sentence plus a one-year term for escape. She petitioned for a new trial three months later, claiming a statement sent to authorities from a jailhouse informant proved her innocence.

At the time of the original trial, Johnny Box, then a 22-year-old inmate serving with Nash at the DeSoto County jail in Mississippi, wrote a four-page letter to prosecutors claiming that Nash confessed that he alone shot the clerk. But prosecutors released only one page of Box's four-page statement.

In granting the new trial, the Tennessee appeals court found that jurors might have viewed the case differently had they known of Nash's purported confession, especially given the age and educational disparities between Nash and Freshwater.

Freshwater was not available for comment, but her lawyer said she believed she would be set free eventually.

"She's always been optimistic," Johnson said. "She has a tremendous amount of faith."