The plea agreement between DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack’s office and now-convicted murderer William “Billy” Curl seems appropriate.
But it appears Schmack’s office has some work to do when it comes to working with victims’ families and handling the publicity that accompanies these types of cases.
First, the plea deal: William “Billy” Curl pleaded guilty to murdering 18-year-old college freshman Antinette ‘Toni’ Keller on Wednesday in exchange for a 37-year sentence. He will not receive any good behavior credit. With credit for time served, Curl could be released when he is 71. If he lives that long behind bars, that is.
The enormity of the crime to which Curl pleaded guilty should not be understated.
Keller, a Northern Illinois University freshman from Plainfield, was last seen around noon in October 2010, when she told friends she was going for a walk in Prairie Park. Some time after, authorities say Curl raped and murdered her, then burned her body and possessions.
Some have complained that this plea agreement is outrageous. Curl should never see the light of day, and if it took a trial for a life sentence to be secured, then so be it. They say that Curl being allowed to enter an “Alford plea,” under which he maintains his innocence but pleads guilty, is a slap in the face to the family.
That tough-on-crime view overlooks some key points. As Schmack pointed out Wednesday, there was no guarantee that Curl would be found guilty at trial. The state had no eyewitnesses, murder weapon, time of death or cause of death. Even if he was convicted, Curl could have appealed the verdict, keeping the case active for years to come.
Although many complain this agreement was unfair to the family, the particulars raised in a public trial could have been traumatic as well. And there was no guarantee, even if he was found guilty, that a judge would have sentenced Curl to more than 37 years.
As for the Alford plea, even if Curl were tried and convicted, he could still maintain his innocence. Under this agreement, he can claim he’s innocent all he wants – from behind bars.
Schmack’s office evaluated the evidence and secured a lengthy prison sentence and murder conviction in this case. As Schmack pointed out Wednesday, Curl was charged with first-degree murder and was convicted of first-degree murder. His office did its job.
It just doesn’t appear they did enough to make the victim’s family understand that point of view, or at least to respect it enough to refrain from publicly calling them out.
A spokesman for the Keller family complained this week that Schmack’s office had not done a good job communicating with them. Keller’s parents showed up at the DeKalb County Courthouse on Tuesday and waited while lawyers met behind closed doors. They left without learning of an outcome.
They didn’t return for the hearing Wednesday, but their supporters on social media were busy posting Schmack’s office contact information on the internet and encouraging people to complain about the plea bargain.
Also, it felt as though Schmack’s office treated this as just another criminal case, which it clearly was not. Reporters also attended Tuesday’s meeting about a plea agreement in the case. When it was over, they were sent away from Schmack’s office without a word from him.
Not long after, an emailed press release was sent to the media informing them what had been settled behind closed doors. It added to the feeling – particularly among those who disagreed with the decision – that this was being handled on the sly.
It seems that the plea agreement was properly handled. But more should have been done to help the victims’ family through the process and to help the public understand what was happening.