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April 17, 2014

7 P.M. UPDATE: Richard Hooten to spend life in jail after murder plea

Repeat offender avoids capital case in death of Clarksville teen

JEFFERSONVILLE — Clark County Prosecutor Steve Stewart intended on convincing a jury later this year that Richard Carley Hooten Jr. should be sentenced to death.

That trial will not take place, however, as Hooten, 50, accepted plea deal Thursday for the brutal sexual assault, rape, strangulation and death of a 17-year-old Tara Willenborg in her Clarksville apartment in 2013.

While there is no longer a threat he may be killed by lethal injection, Hooten will spend the rest of his life confined in the Indiana Department of Correction.

“The sentence called for by the plea agreement is a life without parole sentence plus 50 years plus 20 years, all consecutive,” Stewart said. “While we had originally charged a death sentence, I think we have to understand the hell that the victim’s family has been put through.”

Stewart said the plea was appropriate considering the circumstances.

Through the plea agreement, Hooten admitted his guilt to charges of murder, class B felony rape and class B felony criminal deviate conduct.

The hearing was held in Clark County Circuit Court No. 4 with Judge Vicki Carmichael presiding.

During the hearing, Hooten sat in handcuffs and a bright orange T-shirt and was flanked by defense attorneys Drew Adams and Brent Westerfeld.

“I was prepared to go to trial,” Stewart said. “I think that the evidence was sufficient to convince a jury and judge to sentence him to death, but there are other factors that need to be taken into account, and one was the input of the victim’s family.”

With the plea agreement, Willenborg’s loved ones will be spared the stress of further court proceedings and eventually a trial. Stewart said the Willenborg family was an “essential part of the process” in offering Hooten the plea.

“Losing a beautiful 17-year-old daughter is everyone’s worst nightmare and [the family’s] wishes and desires need to be respected,” Stewart said. “I am sure just like any other family who has been victimized the way they have, they wanted to get it over with and try to get on with their lives.”

After the hearing, Adams said the plea agreement allowed the defense to fulfill its primary objective.

“As defense attorneys on death cases, our ultimate goal is to save the defendant’s life,” Adams said. “In this particular case, I was [informed] that might be a possibility. We sought that out, and the family was acceptable to life without parole, and that allowed us to resolve the case.”

Kelley Curran on Thursday told the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting that years of appeals following a death sentence might have given her daughter’s killer “something to look forward to, to drag things out. We would prefer that he just sit in a jail cell and be forgotten about.

“We think his life and health will be lesser than on death row,” Curran added. “It’s a positive thing for us to get some closure, to move forward.”

Curran said in a written statement emailed to the News and Tribune that her family supported the plea, in part, because of the emotional  burden and costs to taxpayers of a capital trial and the “inevitable appeals.”

“This agreement won’t make us whole again. A formal admission of guilt won’t give us back what was taken,” she wrote. “We do hope it provides some closure. Mostly, I’m grateful Tara's modesty and dignity can be protected in a way that would not be possible were there to have been a trial given today’s media environment.

“I'm grateful that Hooten will likely die sooner than he would have on death row as inmates in general population, especially ones with charges such as his, have a shorter life expectancy when not segregated than those sentenced to death.”

Hooten, who has a lengthy history of violent crime, admitted to entering Willenborg’s home in Cambridge Square Apartments on March 2, 2013, and making sexual advances toward the girl. From Hooten’s account, Willenborg declined his advances, at which time he drug her into her bedroom and began a violent sexual assault.

After the attack, Hooten has said he went to his girlfriend’s Cambridge Square apartment. Hooten left the complex after a friend of Willenborg’s discovered her body and made a 911 call.

Clarksville police found Hooten walking near Eastern Boulevard hours after the murder.

Hooten is scheduled to return to Clark County Circuit Court No. 4 on May 19 to be sentenced.

“It is a good thing for our community to rid itself of the likes of Mr. Hooten, whether that is through the death penalty or life without parole, either one,” Stewart said. “I am happy with the conclusion.”

— R.G. Dunlop of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting contributed to this report.

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