Charles Vernon has pleaded guilty to first degree manslaughter and two other charges in the 2016 death of Apache Hightower.
More than three years after he was indicted, Vernon entered a plea of guilty on charges of first-degree manslaughter, first-degree kidnapping, and hindering prosecution.
Vernon, Jesse Lane and Stephanie Toney were implicated in the September 2016 homicide of 24-year-old Hightower, a mother of one. All three defendants were indicted in October 2016.
Though the plea deal only involves guilty pleas on three charges, and no murder charges, Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier said that final outcome wouldn't be much different. With the plea deal, Vernon will be eligible for parole after 23 years, Auxier said, adding that if Vernon had been convicted at trial, the most likely sentence would leave Vernon eligible for parole after 25 years.
Murder is punishable by life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
First-degree manslaughter and first-degree kidnapping are both Class A felonies, which means each charge carries a sentence of up to 20 years. Hindering prosecution is a Class C felony and carries up to a five-year sentence.
Vernon was originally indicted on 11 charges, including three counts of aggravated murder, which is the only crime that can carry a death sentence in Oregon. A bill signed into law last fall changed the standards for aggravated murder and — to the surprise of many, including lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill — applied the new standards to pending criminal cases.
In October 2019, the indictment was amended to three counts of first-degree murder in place of the aggravated murder charges.
Before the plea deal was made, Vernon's trial was set to start at the end of this month. Now, his sentencing is scheduled for April 17.
Auxier said the deal was reached in consultation with Hightower's family.
"As a case progresses, you're constantly analyzing and reanalyzing the strength of your case," Auxier said. "We don't make plea offers in homicide cases, just as a Columbia County DA policy. But if the offer is made by the defense, we take that offer to the victim and discuss the strengths of the case and the pros and cons of that offer."
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