An expected week-long murder trial in Lebanon County court was avoided Tuesday morning when the defendant entered a last-minute no contest plea to voluntary manslaughter just before opening statements were about to start.

A jury had been selected on Monday to hear the case.

William D. Culbreath, now 40, was accused of fatally stabbing 35-year-old Travis Farrell on Nov. 16, 2015, outside the Silver Dollar Grille on North 9th Street, Lebanon.

Under the plea agreement, entered before Judge Charles Jones, Culbreath will be sentenced to 5 1/2 to 11 years in state prison, the maximum possible sentence under Pennsylvania’s sentencing guidelines, given his short, minor criminal record, according to Lebanon County District Attorney Pier Hess Graf.

Sentencing before Jones is tentatively set for Dec. 7.

A no contest, or “nolo contendre,” plea means that a defendant is not contesting a criminal charge, but not expressly admitting guilt. As a practical matter, a no contest plea is treated the same as a guilty plea for sentencing purposes.

Culbreath and Farrell were both romantically involved with the same woman, according to Hess Graf.

Hess Graf told LebTown on Tuesday that police identified Culbreath as the prime suspect within hours of the incident, but that he fled and was only located, in North Carolina, in June 2020, when he was arrested on an unrelated charge.

Culbreath was originally facing a general homicide charge, which could have allowed a first-degree murder conviction. Hess Graf said the charge was reduced to voluntary manslaughter because the passage of nearly seven years resulted in witness problems, including one witness dying in the interim and another himself becoming a fugitive.

She added that there was no surveillance video of the incident.

Culbreath is represented by York attorney Jeremy Williams, who had not responded to requests for comment by publication time.

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