Prosecutors respond to donation allegations
Sandra Chapman/Eyewitness News
Indianapolis - The Marion County Prosecutor's office denies any connection between its decision to reduce a murderer's sentence and accepting thousands in campaign donations from that same convict's father.
Paula Willoughby walked out of the Indiana Women's Prison last June - 30 years earlier than expected - after hatching a murder for hire scheme that led to her husband's death.
"This was a well-planned, well-plotted murder conspiracy," said Gary Miller, a former Marion County judge who initially sentenced Willoughby to 110 years.
On appeal, the Indiana Supreme Court cut it to 70.
Then, in 2006, as her attorneys sought to negotiate the sentence down to 40 years, thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Willoughby's father began pouring in for Prosecutor Carl Brizzi, $29,000 to be exact.
Brizzi says he didn't know Willoughby's father, Harrison Epperly, was behind the donations from EMSP Realty, but wouldn't answer questions Monday.
"Absolutely, it creates an appearance of impropriety. The question is, 'Was it improper?' The fact that it was done at the time, at the same time campaign contributions were made, makes everybody in the process look bad," said Miller.
Including Brizzi's Chief Trial Deputy, David Wyser, who signed off on the reduction. He received a $2,500 donation from Willoughby's father last year for his Hamilton County bid for prosecutor.
He says the money came three years after a letter was sent saying he would be open to the reduction and long before he entered the prosecutor's race. He denies knowing anything about the large sums going to Brizzi.
"No, absolutely not. Absolutely not," said Wyser.
According to Wyser, it was an unusual set of circumstances that led to the deal, including the fact that one of Willoughby's sons was killed by a drunk driver, leaving another son with no immediate family members.
"Given the fact that the shooter was acquitted and didn't do time and the co-defendant was sentenced to 35 years and had been released in 2004, that also played into the fact that the least culpable was not going to be serving a sentence much longer than the other two," explained Wyser.
The only stipulation was that Paula Willoughby serve her 40-year murder sentence. With time for good behavior, that meant she would serve 20 years in prison.
Brizzi's only comment came over the weekend.
"We have people who make contributions to prosecutors and legislators and businesses, so this is the kind of stuff that happens and when there is an issue, then the right thing to do is to return the contributions, which is what happened in both cases and move on," he said.
According the Department of Correction, Willoughby shaved an additional two years off her sentence with educational credits by earning an Associates Degree and completing a vocational training program.
Statement from David Wyser
Wyser sent Eyewitness News the following statement regarding the donations:
In 2005, I was approached by an attorney, James Bell from the firm of Bingham McHale, and he contacted me in regards to the modification.
In the summer of 2005, Paula Willoughby's son was killed by a drunk driver. She still had another son Jeremy. Jeremy was left with having his father murdered in 1991, his brother now killed by a drunk driver, as well as his mother being incarcerated. So he was left without any immediate family.
There was a lot of support and requests by his family members, in fact some of the documents that were provided to me were verified statements and affidavits, from the victims mother, step-father and brother, all supportive of Paula's release in 2005. I contacted Ms. Willis, that was Darrell Willoughby's mother and spoke with her in early 2006, to confirm that was in fact her desire.
That given consideration, and also under the current law the conspiracy to commit murder along with the murder, those two counts were merged. The Supreme court gave the sentence of 40-years for murder, and 30-years for conspiracy to commit murder back in 92, and when she was sentenced, ran consecutive to one another.
In 1999, under the Richardson case the law had changed, where those two counts would actually merge. And therefore she would only serve a 40-year sentence.
Judge Miller who was the judge who did the sentencing, stated at her sentencing, and I'll quote, (this was in the first opinion of Willoughby vs State) Judge Miller stated, "I mean to state that the relative involvement if you had to label the most culpable of the three, mid-culpable and least culpable, as far as their actions are concerned, I think probably you'd get a unanimous decision that Mrs. Willoughby committed the least amount of acts, that directly caused the death.
Given the fact that the shooter was acquitted, and didn't do time and the co-defendant was sentenced to 35-years, and had been released in 2004, that also played into the fact that the least culpable was not going to be serving a sentence much longer than the other 2 parties that are involved in this.
So taking all of this into account, the sentence that was given to her, the terrible and tragic issues for Jeremy you know being left without mother, father and brother..and the sentencing laws. I took all of that into consideration and I advised James Bell and Kevin McGoff, the two attorneys back in 2006, that I would be amenable to her release and modification after she served her full 40-year sentence. So that's why I agreed to that in 2006.