GEORGETOWN, Del. — The patience that David Sproates expressed a year ago — when the woman who allegedly masterminded the murders of his brother and uncle was granted a new trial — has eroded into disbelief, disappointment and outrage.
That is because Linda Lou Charbonneau, 59, was allowed to plead guilty to one count of second-degree murder Monday, March 5.
Once on death row, she now faces a possible prison term of 10 to 20 years when she is sentenced in Sussex County Superior Court on May 25.
“I feel like the victims in this case did not get any justice at all,” Sproates said in a telephone interview Monday night, several hours after learning that Charbonneau had pleaded guilty to second-degree murder of former husband, John Charbonneau.
Linda Charbonneau was convicted in 2004 of plotting the first-degree murders of her husband William Sproates III, a former Golts resident, and John Charbonneau.
She was granted a new trial due to an error by the original judge.
The new trial began Feb. 22 and was expected to take several weeks.
But the prosecution’s case took a hit Monday when one of the key witnesses — co-conspirator Mellisa Rucinski, who also is Linda Charbonneau’s daughter — told court officials she would not testify against her mother.
Rucinski is serving 25 years in prison for her role in the crimes. She was sentenced after her mother’s first trial in the spring of 2004.
On Monday, Rucinski was found guilty of contempt and given an additional five months in jail.
David Sproates, Billy Sproates’ younger brother by 10 months, was at work in Chestertown when he received a call on his cell phone from the attorney general’s office.
Prosecutor James Adkins told David Sproates “his hands were tied and that the judge only gave him 45 minutes” to make a decision regarding a plea offer.
“I was floored, speechless,” he said after learning of the turn of events.
“I feel that my brother didn’t get any justice whatsoever.”
“This was not a fair trial,” said Sproates, 50, who was sequestered for five days before testifying March 1. “I feel that they’re sending out the wrong message, that’s it OK to kill. At the most she’ll spend the rest of her life in jail, where she’ll get three squares a day and the best medical care, TV and a workout center.”
In March 2006, the Delaware State Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Linda Charbonneau, who until then was the only woman on Delaware’s death row.
Defense attorneys, appealing her death sentence, argued that if co-defendant Willie Brown had been compelled to testify they would have pointed out inconsistencies between his statements and the events as presented by other state witnesses — hoping to raise reasonable doubt among jurors.
During a three-week trial in Sussex County Superior Court, a jury heard testimony about how Charbonneau manipulated her daughter and Brown, who subsequently married Rucinski, into brutally murdering Billy Sproates, 45, and his uncle John Charbonneau, 62.
The panel of eight men and four women determined that Linda Charbonneau directed the bludgeoning death of John Charbonneau and the beating and stabbing of Sproates.
The autopsy showed that Billy Sproates died after being buried alive.
The murders — which were carried out three weeks apart in the fall of 2001 — came after Linda Charbonneau for years physically abused and took advantage of the men she lived with in on-again, off-again relationships, prosecutors said.
According to trial testimony, Linda Charbonneau had John Charbonneau killed so that she could have his home and all his possessions. She then had Sproates killed because he was too close to learning the truth.
Billy Sproates was buried in a shallow grave near John Charbonneau’s Bridgeville (Del.) home.
In exchange for lesser penalties, Brown and Rucinski had agreed to testify at Linda Charbonneau’s trial. Prosecutors never called Brown and he refused to testify — citing the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination — when called by Linda Charbonneau’s lawyers.
Rucinski was on the stand for more than a day, but the court had serious reservations about her candor after she admitted under oath that she had lied in previous statements to police.
Superior Court Judge Richard F. Stokes sentenced Rucinski to 20 years in prison for second-degree murder of John Charbonneau, with the first 10 years mandatory. She also was sentenced to five years in jail followed by six months in work release for conspiracy in Billy Sproates’ death.
In a deal that spared his life, Brown pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. But prosecutors did not put him on the witness stand because they believed he was lying.
In statements to investigators, Brown said Linda Charbonneau killed John Charbonneau and that Rucinski was involved in the slaying of Sproates, according to defense attorneys.
At trial, Stokes denied a defense motion to admit into evidence Brown’s accounts of the murders.
Instead, the jury only heard that Brown killed both men.
Four of the five Supreme Court justices said Brown should have been made to testify.
“It was error for the trial judge to accept the state’s contention that Brown (not Rucinski) was lying and then to remove that issue from the jury,” Chief Justice Myrone T. Steele wrote in a 58-page ruling.
Supreme Court Justice Henry duPont Ridgely, the only dissenter, wrote that there was no legal requirement for prosecutors to call Brown as a witness.