Plea deal in NIU student murder case

SYCAMORE – William "Billy" Curl is accepting a 37-year plea agreement in which he will be convicted of murdering college freshman Antinette "Toni" Keller but maintain his innocence, his sister, Moria Curl said.

William Curl, 36, of DeKalb, accepted a stiffer prison sentence than prosecutors had once offered because he wanted this specialized plea, called an Alford plea, Moria Curl said. An Alford plea indicates that the defendant admits the evidence could convince a judge or a jury to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt but the defendant maintains he did not do it.

DeKalb County State's Attorney Richard Schmack declined to comment beyond a two-paragraph news release indicating Curl planned to plead guilty to murder in exchange for a 37-year prison sentence. He must serve the entire sentence; he cannot receive credit for good behavior, Schmack said.

William Curl's public defenders and two prosecutors spent about 45 minutes earlier in the day discussing details of the crime, potential sentences and a possible plea agreement in Judge Robbin Stuckert's chambers.

William Curl was scheduled to stand trial April 11 on a charges alleging he raped and murdered Keller, an 18-year-old Northern Illinois University freshman from Plainfield. Keller was last seen about noon Oct. 14, 2010, when she told friends she was going for a walk in Prairie Park. Her burned remains were found in the park two days later.

But Moria Curl said plea negotiations started more than a week ago, with prosecutors first suggesting a 50-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. Then, there were offers of 34 years, 32 years and 29 years, Moria Curl said. Her brother settled on 37 years after insisting on the Alford plea, rather than a traditional guilty plea, she said.

Finally, prosecutors told William Curl they would pursue a life sentence if he went to trial rather than accepting the 37-year plea, Moria Curl said. She said she learned of the details of the plea negotiations by talking with her brother and his attorney.

McCulloch was not available for comment after Schmack announced the pending plea deal. But as he left the conference in Stuckert's chambers, McCulloch said there was a good chance the trial scheduled  would be canceled. He estimated that trial would have lasted 3 weeks.

Curl did not attend the special pretrial conference, but McCulloch said he planned to update him immediately on the developments.

"I think we're well on our way to being done," McCulloch said, adding that a trial for Curl could have lasted three weeks.

Meanwhile, Keller's parents were not immediately prepared to comment on Schmack's news release, family spokesman Mary Tarling, Keller's cousin, said.

Keller's parents, Diane and Roger Keller, drove about an hour from Plainfield on Tuesday to attend the afternoon hearing but arrived after the attorneys walked into the judge's chambers. They left before the attorneys returned from the judge's chambers after learning no final action was expected Tuesday. Her parents declined to be interviewed while at the courthouse.

Tarling said the concept of a plea agreement was sprung on Keller's family rather quickly, with the family learning of Tuesday's conference at the last minute.

"The communication [with Schmack's office] has not been really strong," Tarling said.

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