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Legal experts weigh in on Curl plea agreement

Published: Wednesday, April 17, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT
(Daily Chronicle file photo)
Korrine Huber (left) of South Elgin plays the guitar as Annie Barson of Maple Park holds her sheet music recently as supporters of Antinette "Toni" Keller's family organized a gathering outside the DeKalb County Courthouse in response to the plea agreement with William "Billy" Curl in Sycamore.

SYCAMORE – Experienced criminal defense attorneys had a different reaction to William “Billy” Curl’s 37-year plea agreement than the handful of residents who protested the deal last week.

Leonard Cavise, director for the Center for Public Interest Law at DePaul University, said a 37-year prison sentence in a plea agreement such as Curl’s was a major victory for prosecutors. Cavise figured prosecutors would not have received much more had they gone to trial and successfully obtained a guilty verdict.

“Thirty-seven years is a lot of years to agree to, so it strikes me the prosecution was fairly confident,” Cavise said.

Curl, 36, of DeKalb, pleaded guilty earlier this month to killing Northern Illinois University freshman Antinette “Toni” Keller, an 18-year-old from Plainfield. She was last seen Oct. 14, 2010, when she told friends she was going for a walk in Prairie Park. Her burned body was found in the park two days later.

If convicted of murdering Keller while committing either arson or rape, Curl could have faced a life sentence, but murder alone is punishable with between 20 and 60 years in prison. Prosecutors dropped the charges involving the arson and rape allegations as part of the plea agreement.

A murder case ending with a plea agreement isn’t unusual, though, Cavise said, noting more than 90 percent of criminal cases and 60 percent of murder cases end with a deal.

Attorney Brian Telander has experienced the plea agreement process in murder cases from the perspective of a prosecutor, judge and defense lawyer. The Glen Ellyn attorney recently negotiated an 18-year prison term for David Szalonek, a 19-year-old Algonquin man accused of fatally shooting his father in February 2010.

Telander said most of the murder cases he has been involved with have ended in plea agreements and tend to materialize right before the trial. Curl pleaded guilty a week before his trial was scheduled to start.

“There is no real formula because every case is different,” Telander said. “But most sides get a little more reasonable when a trial is staring them in the face.”

The victim’s family’s involvement should also be limited in a plea deal, Cavise said. DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack drew criticism for not better communicating with the Keller family during the final stages of plea negotiations, but Schmack said the family was invited to meet with him and prosecutors and never came.

“The prosecutor doesn’t represent the victim. The prosecutor represents society,” Cavise said. “It’s a terrible tragedy, and they should listen to the family’s concerns, but it should be an independent judgment and oftentimes it is not.”

Schmack declined to comment on the process of the plea agreement because Curl’s 30-day window to change his plea is still open.

DeKalb County Public Defender Tom McCulloch declined to comment on whether Curl was considering withdrawing his plea, but said it is allowed only under limited circumstances. McCulloch, who was not addressing Curl’s plea, said there would need to be strong evidence a person was misled by attorneys or somehow impaired at the time of the plea for it to be withdrawn.

“It’s a tough row to hoe,” he said. “It doesn’t happen very often. You would need a perfect storm of mistakes.”

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