In a plea deal reached with DeKalb County prosecutors, William Curl will serve 37 years for the murder of Toni Keller. The NIU freshman art major was found murdered near campus in 2010.
State’s Attorney Richard Schmack told reporters justice was served. He said he feared if the case had gone to trial, Curl may have gotten a much lighter sentence.
"This is an outcome that results in his long-term incarceration, protecting the people of this county and the people of this state from him. Had, by some fluke, he been acquitted, then he would have been an acquitted person who just spent two-and-a-half years for a murder" Schmack said.
Clay Campbell, the former State’s Attorney who filed the original charges, wanted to case to go to trial. He called it “outrageous” that Curl could once again be a free man.
"I am deeply saddened today by the plea that was entered and the agreement that was made by the State's Attorney's office and Mr. Curl's attorneys. Two years ago when I met Antinette Keller's parents, I made a personal commitment that I would seek the maximum punishment allowable under the law for this horrendous crime" Campbell said.
Toni Keller’s parents were not at the proceedings. They came to the courthouse on Tuesday, thinking a deal had been made, but they did not return Wednesday. During the court appearance, a relative shouted “Billy, don’t take it…they’re railroading you”
Curl’s public defender Tom McCulloch says Curl was aware of his options, including a life sentence, and that may have played a role in his decision:
“I don’t know what was in his head, because when you the roll the dice you take a chance at what the judge finally decides” McCulloch said.
Curl took fate into his own hands. He'll be released when he is in his 70s.
Curl’s deal with prosecutors is a specialized agreement known as the Alford plea. It means a defendant can plead guilty to a crime but still maintain his or her innocence. Legal experts say it’s a way of acknowledging that the prosecution stands a good chance of securing a conviction. In this case, Curl does have to serve all 37 years of his prison sentence.
NIU law professor Mark Falkoff says there’s a key question at the heart of this type of plea.
“There’s a theoretical question about whether pleading guilty to a crime that you believe you didn’t commit can ever be said to be a voluntary plea, and that only voluntary pleas should be accepted by judges” Falkoff said.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such a plea is voluntary. Falkoff says he understands that people affected by a murder case might be uneasy with this kind of arrangement, because it might not bring final closure. But for practical purposes, he says it’s a way for prosecutors to ensure the person suspected of the crime goes to prison.
“No one is going to view a conviction pursuant to an Alford plea as really anything less than the defendant conceding that he’s guilty” Falkoff said.
Falkoff also notes that more than 90-percent of criminal convictions in the U.S. are the result of plea deals. He says it’s not as extreme for violent felonies, but he says they are used a lot in those instances.
NIU student Mike Walczak was attending the university at the time of Keller’s murder. Like the victim, Walczak was a freshman when it happened. He says he vividly remembers all the helicopters flying over campus.
Walczak says he’s happy to know that William Curl is headed to prison for the crime.
“It feels good. Justice is a long time coming for that family” Walczak said.
Walczak says the decision to offer a plea deal should ultimately be up to the family. Prosecutors did say they had limited discussions with Keller’s family about the matter. But Walczak says personally, he’s satisfied knowing that the chief suspect in the case no longer has a chance of beating a conviction.