A judge ruled on May 1, 2017, that William Curl can present evidence of his ineffective counsel claims as he seeks to withdraw his guilty plea in the 2010 death of 18-year-old Antinette "Toni" Keller. (DeKalb County Sheriff’s Department)
A DeKalb man who pleaded guilty to the 2010 murder of a Northern Illinois University freshman and is now seeking to withdraw his plea has been granted a hearing to present evidence that he was provided ineffective legal assistance.
DeKalb County Chief Judge Robbin Stuckert ruled Monday that William Curl may present evidence of his ineffective counsel claims as he seeks to withdraw his guilty plea in the death of 18-year-old Antinette "Toni" Keller. The badly burned body of the Plainfield resident and graduate of Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville was found in a DeKalb park in October 2010.
Curl, 40, was charged with her murder and in 2013 made an unusual guilty plea in which he maintained his innocence but stipulated that had his case gone to trial prosecutors would have presented enough proof against him to garner a conviction.
In 2015, in the second year of a 37-year murder sentence, Curl filed a post-conviction petition, alleging that his attorney, Public Defender Thomas McCulloch, had pressured him into pleading guilty. He also alleged that then-State’s Attorney Richard Schmack had threatened to implicate Curl’s son in the murder if Curl did not plead guilty.
Both Schmack, who is no longer the state’s attorney, and McCulloch have previously contested Curl’s version of his plea negotiations.
Curl also maintained that at the time of plea he had been prohibited from taking his required psychotropic medication, which affected his ability to knowingly enter a guilty plea.
In her ruling, Stuckert said Curl petition had raised enough constitutional issues to warrant their examination at a full hearing.
"…The petitioner’s allegations of fact — liberally construed in favor of the petitioner and in light of the original trial record — make a substantial showing of a constitutional violation warranting further factual inquiry at an evidentiary hearing," the judge wrote.
Keller was last seen alive on Oct. 14, 2010, when she told friends that she was going to the park to do some sketching. Her body was found there two days later, and Curl was arrested about two weeks later. Police interviewed him once and then tracked him to Louisiana when he failed to appear for a second interview.
Authorities say Curl originally told police he discovered Keller’s body in the park and that he incinerated it. He later said he and Keller were having sex when she hit her head on a rock and died, according to authorities.
The case will be back in court for a status hearing on May 22, and a date for the evidentiary hearing may be set then.
Clifford Ward is a freelance reporter.