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Crime & Courts

ONE MORE MONTH TO WAIT

Hearing on Curl's request for trial in 2010 murder of NIU student concludes; October ruling expected

SYCAMORE – In the front row of a DeKalb County courtroom, Diane Keller let her head drop onto the right shoulder of her husband, Roger, and cried. He put his arm around her, consoling her as tears welled in his eyes.

Another month.

Another month of waiting to find out whether William P. “Billy” Curl will be allowed to stand trial for the murder of their 18-year-old daughter, Antinette “Toni” Keller, 18, a Northern Illinois University student from Plainfield, in October 2010.

“It’s very difficult to wait another month,” Diane Keller said Friday outside the courtroom. “We’ve had to suffer seven years, and we’re going to suffer the rest of our lives.”

Chief Judge Robbin Stuckert said she would issue a written order Oct. 6 on whether Curl can take back his guilty plea to the murder. The judge's announcement came after a day of testimony from police and lawyers who had represented Curl and prosecuted him. They generally contradicted Curl's claims that his lawyers were incompetent and that he was threatened into pleading guilty.

About a dozen of Toni Keller’s family members and friends attended the third day of the evidentiary hearing, the last of three stages of Curl's petition to withdraw his guilty plea and seek a trial. Most of them dressed in yellow, with some sporting sunflower accessories in Keller’s memory. Keller was a freshman at Northern Illinois University studying art when she was killed.

“We respect the process, and that the decision will be completely thought through,” said Toni Keller’s cousin, Mary Tarling, “but at some point, there has to be some humaneness. Every time this is brought up, it rips the wound back open.”

Curl testified Thursday that then-State's Attorney Richard Schmack visited Curl in jail just before he was supposed to go to trial in April 2013 and threatened to prosecute Curl's 13-year-old son as an accessory to the murder unless Curl took a plea deal.

Schmack, along with public defenders Tom McCulloch and Chip Criswell, spent Friday morning refuting Curl's testimony.

"At any point during your tenure as state's attorney, did you inform William Curl that if he didn't take a plea agreement, you would prosecute his son?" First Assistant State's Attorney Stephanie Klein asked.

"I absolutely did not," Schmack said.

During cross-examination by Transier, Schmack said not only had he not visited Curl in jail, but he'd never been in the jail portion of the sheriff's office during his time as state's attorney.

Curl testified Thursday that the public defender's office failed to review evidence with him and prepare for trial. Investigator Crystal Harrolle, who works in the public defender's office, testified Friday that she had gone over 5,200-plus pages of discovery with him over multiple visits, that they'd watched all the videos of his interviews with police detectives, and that they'd explored potential alibis.

McCulloch, who took over as Curl's public defender in the fall of 2012, testified that he went over the strengths and weaknesses of the state's case with Curl "a number of times" at the jail. He said they discussed filing a motion to suppress the interviews with detectives.

"In my opinion, the material we had would probably not have caused the statements to be suppressed," McCulloch said.

He said Curl understood his decision to plead guilty. He also said a fitness evaluation wasn't ordered for Curl because he "thought he was fit" for trial.

In her closing argument, Klein cited numerous cases in which defendants were unable to suppress statements made to law enforcement while they were on drugs.

She pointed to precedence in which defendants in far worse shape than Curl were denied mental fitness evaluations.

Then she pointed to testimony given by Jane Braden on the first day of the hearing, Wednesday. Braden did a full evaluation of Curl while he was in custody, as ordered by his initial public defender, Regina Harris, who also testified Friday.

Klein said Braden found that Curl was no more suggestible in police interviews than an average person, that he had a tendency to lie, often in exaggerating his mental illness.

“What her evaluation process revealed is that the defendant is not unfit, or unable to understand his Miranda rights or the court proceedings,” Klein said. “What it revealed is that the defendant is an angry, violent person who lies a lot.”

She then pointed out that if Curl’s petition is denied, he’s scheduled to be released at age 71.

“He’s the fortunate one, because he has an out date,” Klein said. “If he lives long enough, if he makes it to age 71, he will get out of prison. Mr. and Mrs. Keller do not have an out date. There’s no age they can live to that will bring their daughter back to them.”

Curl has claimed in his petition for post-conviction relief that his lawyers failed to try to suppress video interviews with police officers days after the burned remains of Keller’s body were found Oct. 16, 2010, in Prairie Park in DeKalb. In videos of the interviews, Curl changes his story multiple times, going from having nothing to do with it, to happening upon the body, to Keller having a seizure and dying while they were having sex after a chance encounter on the path that winds through the park.

“There’s a lot of damning comments that were made by Mr. Curl during the course of his interviews with members of the DeKalb Police Department,” Curl's lawyer, Dan Transier said in his closing argument. “Their failure to try to keep that statement out of evidence prejudiced the defendant so much that he was deprived of a fair trial. He never had a chance to have a trial, with this statement presented in evidence.”

Curl testifed Thursday that he was "not right in the head" while being interviewed by detectives in Louisiana, where he was arrested Oct. 27, 2010. He'd been smoking salvia and that he was still feeling its mind-altering effects. He said he told DeKalb police detectives Bob Redel and Michael Stewart he was on the drug, but they both testified Friday that he had not – nor had he told them he'd been off his anti-psychotic medication.

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