A state appellate court on Friday voided a 35-year prison sentence for a man who pleaded guilty to killing a woman in Aurora in 2005.
Gareng Deng, now 21, was 17 when he accepted a plea agreement with Kane County prosecutors for the Oct. 31, 2005, murder of 47-year-old Marilyn Bethell of Aurora. He sought to withdraw his guilty plea in 2011, arguing that he had inadequate legal representation and didn't know he'd have to serve 100 percent of the sentence, but a circuit court judge denied the request.
On Friday, the three-judge Second District Illinois Appellate Court issued a written opinion that overturns the circuit court ruling, allowing the case to go back to circuit court where Deng can enter a new plea.
Deng now has the option of pleading not guilty, or striking a new plea agreement. When he tried to withdraw his guilty plea in 2011, Deng said someone named Robert committed the crime, according to the appellate court's written opinion.
The appellate court ruled that Deng should have received a "mandatory sentencing enhancement" of 25 years to life in prison after he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder charges. The sentencing range for first-degree murder is 20 to 60 years, but it also requires the "enhanced sentence" of 25 years to life if the person "personally discharged a firearm that proximately caused death to another person," according to state statute.
Instead, Deng was sentenced to 35 years without the added-on sentence.
The trial court was "required to sentence (the) defendant with the 25-year-to-life enhancement, making 45 years the minimum possible sentence," wrote Appellate Judge Kathryn E. Zenoff. "Because (the) defendant was sentenced to less than that amount, and was not admonished of the enhancement, his sentence and the plea agreement that led to it are void."
At Deng's original preliminary court hearing in November 2007, prosecutors charged him with three counts of first-degree murder -- the first two of which the mandatory enhancement would have applied.
The third count -- to which Deng later pleaded guilty -- didn't include the enhanced sentence, Zenoff wrote in the appellate ruling.
Deng, a Sudanese immigrant, was 14 at the time of the murder and living in Aurora about a mile away from Bethell, who was employed as a substance abuse counselor in Hoffman Estates.
At the time of the 2009 murder trial, prosecutors said Deng entered Bethell's house on Halloween in 2005 and kidnapped her at gunpoint. Her body was found two months later in a wooded area along the Illinois Prairie Path east of Kirk Road in Batavia Township.
Deng is in the Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Ill. He is still charged with first-degree murder and could post bail after a new hearing.
• Daily Herald staff writer Harry Hitzeman contributed to this report.