Killer to return to prison after Delaware court ruling

AP News
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Posted: Dec 12, 2016 1:25 PM

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A convicted killer who was granted probation earlier this year is heading back to prison after Delaware's Supreme Court reversed a ruling that freed her.

Catherine Culp, 56, was released from prison after a Superior Court judge concluded that her model conduct and extensive rehabilitation efforts behind bars demonstrated "extraordinary circumstances" justifying a sentence modification.

Prosecutors initially sought the death penalty against Culp for the 1998 shooting death of her boyfriend, Lee Hicks, in Felton, Delaware. After jurors weighed the factors in the case, she was sentenced to life in prison. In 2001, following a retrial, Culp was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Last year, Culp filed a motion for modification of her sentence, 12 years after a similar motion was denied.

In a ruling late last week, a three-judge panel agreed with prosecutors that the judge was barred by state law from considering Culp's second motion for sentence modification.

The ruling means Culp, now living in Florida, will return to prison.

"Following the issuance of a mandate from the Delaware Supreme Court, the Delaware Department of Justice will work with appropriate authorities to enable Ms. Culp to fulfill the terms of the originally imposed sentence," Carl Kanefsky, a spokesman for Attorney General Matt Denn, said in an email Monday.

Culp's attorney, William Deely, said he was disappointed with the ruling.

In agreeing to modify Culp's sentence, Superior Court Judge Robert Young cited her achievements behind bars, including earning an associate's degree, teaching classes, tutoring inmates and training other tutors. He also noted that Culp had earned a computer operator certificate and taken up other pursuits, including Spanish, culinary arts, women's health, public speaking, dancing and floral design.

Prosecutors argued that Young abused his discretion.

Superior Court rules allow a judge to reduce a defendant's sentence only upon a motion filed within 90 days of the sentence being imposed, unless extraordinary circumstances are shown. A judge may not consider repetitive requests for sentence reduction.

Another avenue for relief involves Delaware's criminal code, under which a judge can modify a sentence upon a showing of "good cause" by the Department of Correction and certification that releasing an inmate would not create a substantial risk to either the public or the offender.

Prosecutors said neither circumstance applied in Culp's case.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Justice Karen Valihura said Culp's motion was both repetitive and untimely. She also cited previous court rulings holding that participation in educational and rehabilitative programs, while commendable, does not itself constitute "extraordinary circumstances" under the court rules allowing sentence modification.

Valihura concluded that, after 90 days, any plea for leniency based upon rehabilitative efforts must proceed through the Department of Correction or through the state Board of Pardons, which previously denied a commutation request from Culp.