OFF THE WIRE
Our view: When a man gets probation for his role in a homicide, the prosecution is taking a big risk on a questionable character.
A man facing murder charges in the asphyxiation death of a 50-year-old Paradise man will walk free because he agreed to testify against two other defendants. We sincerely hope the plea-bargain arrangement doesn't come back to haunt the Butte County District Attorney's office.
Seeing someone sentenced to probation for a homicide is jarring. Butte County Superior Court Judge Steven Howell, the prosecutor and the defense attorney all agreed they couldn't recall a case where a murder defendant was given probation after pleading guilty.
But the defendant, Darrell Leigh Hughes, saw the murder charge dropped in the plea bargain if he agreed to cooperate in the trial of co-defendants William Kurt Breunle and Christopher Philip Levin. Prosecutors said the three were members of a motorcycle gang who went to rob Eric Jones, who was growing medical marijuana, in December 2008. Jones was tied up and gagged, then stopped breathing.
In exchange for Hughes' testimony against the other two, the murder charge was dropped and he pleaded guilty to kidnapping, witness intimidation and assault with a deadly weapon. He was given the usual admonition that if he violates probation he could be sent to prison, and if he commits a felony he could be sentenced to a life term in prison.
Will that be enough to keep Hughes out of trouble? It's impossible to say.
He's a middle-aged man who was in a motorcycle gang, taking part in a robbery apparently intended to steal marijuana and a safe. It's not as if he's suddenly going to see the light. Instead, he'll get a spot in the taxpayer-funded witness protection program, which to us sounds like too good a fate for a man who had a role in a murder. All three should be going to prison, not just two.
Perhaps Breunle and Levin were ringleaders and Hughes' involvement was minimal. That will come out at the trial when Hughes testifies. But we think there should be something more than probation and a new identity for a person involved in a robbery and homicide.