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Guilty plea withdrawn in Bethell murder case



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Updated: July 22, 2013 6:10PM

When the prison doors closed behind Gareng Deng five years ago, Pauline O’Neill thought the nightmare surrounding the brutal murder of her sister, Marilyn Bethell, had ended.

In 2007, Deng pleaded guilty to killing the Aurora woman on Halloween night in 2005 when he was just 14 years old.

Though prosecutors said he was an immediate suspect based on his extensive history of trouble, it wasn’t until years later that Deng struck a plea deal with Kane County prosecutors. At 17, Deng was sentenced to 35 years in prison for committing the shocking crime.

But, as far as nightmares go, this one seems to be reoccurring.

Arguing that he was improperly sentenced, Deng won an appeal last week, sending Bethell’s family into a fury. In an opinion filed on Friday, a state appellate court voided Deng’s sentence, and allowed him to withdraw his plea.

The case will now likely go to trial.

* * *

Deng’s argument seems odd at first.

“In order to get to where he wants to be, he needs to argue against his own interest,” said Northern Illinois University Law Professor Marc Falkoff.

To withdraw his guilty plea, Deng needed to prove that his sentence was illegal. Because he used a gun to murder Bethell, Deng’s sentence should have included a mandatory enhancement of 25 years to life, making his minimum sentence 45 years.

At Deng’s preliminary hearing in 2007, prosecutors told the teen that he was charged with three counts of first-degree murder. The first two counts (which were later dropped as part of his plea agreement) would hold a sentence of between 20 to 60 years in prison, plus the mandatory 25 years to life enhancement. Prosecutors never mentioned the enhancement in regards to the third count, which Deng later pleaded guilty to. Instead, they offered him a 35-year sentence.

Deng argued that the imposed sentence was essentially illegal, and that the judge did not have the legal discretion to impose it. The appellate court agreed. And, if the sentence can’t stand, neither can the plea deal that was entered.

But, in withdrawing his plea, Deng has opened himself up to a world of uncertainty, Falkoff said.

“There are big risks that he should be worried of,” he said. For instance, being found guilty at trial could result in a life sentence. Falkoff said Deng might be hoping to strike a new deal, one in which he doesn’t confess to shooting Bethell, and hope for a sentence of less than 35 years. Or, Falkoff said, he could take the case to trial and hope to walk out a free man.

“Either way, it’s probably not good news for this guy at the end of the day,” he said.

* * *

Still, the nightmare lingers on for O’Neill.

“The worst possible scenario is having to start from scratch,” Bethell’s sister said. “We will have to go over all of the things we thought we came to terms with.”

O’Neill said she was completely unsettled when Kane County victims’ advocates called her about the appeal.

By pleading guilty in 2007, Deng had spared Bethell’s family the agony of a trial.

“I was happy — well, if you can be happy — when he took the plea deal. We didn’t have to go through all of the details of the crime,” O’Neill said.

Now, years after the fact, that could change, and O’Neill could find herself sitting in court, reliving the day her sister was killed.

“It was an awful, bizarre crime. And, I don’t know if I want to know the particulars,” she said.

* * *

In October 2005, Bethell was living a quiet life in Aurora with her two pets. Working as a substance abuse counselor in Hoffman Estates, she had recently gone back to school, and had started dating.

Gareng Deng was 14 on Halloween 2005, and living a much different life — breaking into people’s homes, stealing cars and participating in at least two shootings, according to court records.

It was during the commission of one of these crimes that Bethell lost her life. Prosecutors said Deng stole Bethell’s car on Oct. 31, and crashed it nearby. He was seen jumping out of the vehicle, and hopping in another car, driven by someone else, before speeding away. No one else has been charged in Bethell’s murder.

Police investigating the crash went to Bethell’s house, where they found a window open and a bicycle on her lawn. There was no trace of Bethell. About two months later, her badly decomposed body was found off a trail behind her home. She had been shot in the head, then left in the woods. Police suspected Deng from the start, and his electronic home monitoring showed he had left home 13 times between Oct. 30 and Oct. 31, the same time Bethell went missing.

On Nov. 1, 2005, he was arrested for violating parole. In the meantime, police and prosecutors began building a case. They obtained a DNA sample from Deng. It matched semen found on a tissue in Bethell’s house and a DNA sample from the handlebars of the bike. In March 2007, Deng was charged.

* * *

For Deborah Eastman, who shared a decade-long friendship with Bethell, a trial might be too much to take.

“I don’t know how I will be able to handle it,” she said. “If I’m in the courtroom with him, someone will have to hold me back.”

Prosecutors said they plan on appealing the ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court, but Falkoff said the odds are against them.

“I imagine the chances (of the Supreme Court hearing the case) are almost zero,” he said, noting that the Supreme Court ruled on an almost identical case exactly two years ago.

“There is no reason to listen [to this case]. They correctly decided.”

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