On Second Thought...
Documents: Prosecutors Reconsidered Keller Deal
Posted: February 13, 2013
HARRISONBURG — After offering Nakia Keller a plea deal for his role in the 2009 murder of a Hardy County, W.Va., family, it appears federal prosecutors had second thoughts. So much so, in fact, that prosecutors went as far as asking a judge for permission to scrap the agreement.
U.S. Attorney Tim Heaphy wanted to withdraw the deal and seek the death penalty against Keller, as well as his wife, Lorie Ann Taylor-Keller, according to transcripts of a closed-door hearing in the chambers of Judge Glen Conrad in Roanoke on April 30 that were made public in U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg on Thursday.
Heaphy, who already had approval to seek the death penalty against Taylor-Keller, would have had to receive Attorney General Eric Holder’s approval to seek it against Keller.
Heaphy cited new information provided by Taylor-Keller as the reason for having second thoughts, though the transcripts do not indicate the prosecutor ever told the judge what that information was.
“That information, your honor, has caused us to reassess the relative culpability in the case such that I’m not certain that we are prepared to stand by the plea agreement that we filed with respect to Mr. Keller,” Heaphy told Conrad. “We have a signed agreement in the case, but it has not been taken by the court and it may be that we would seek to essentially withdraw from that agreement and reassess possible punishment for Mr. Keller.”
Conrad, however, expressed concerns about how long the case was dragging on, including the financial burden it had on the government. Both defendants had court-appointed attorneys.
Prosecutors say Keller and Taylor-Keller, both 37, killed Taylor-Keller’s ex-husband, Rockingham County firefighter Dennis “Chip” Taylor, 36, Taylor’s 39-year-old wife, Allaina Taylor, and her daughter, Kaylee, 5, on Oct. 23, 2009, in their Lost City, W.Va., home.
Just days later, the married Fulks Run couple was arrested on West Virginia murder charges. In May 2010, however, the pair was indicted on federal charges, opening the door to a possible death sentence; West Virginia does not have capital punishment.
In October 2011, a tentative plea agreement between Keller and the government was reached with an understanding he would testify against his wife in exchange for a sentence of life in prison. In December 2011, prosecutors announced plans to seek the death penalty against Taylor-Keller.
While the U.S. Attorney’s Office continued to prepare for trial, Taylor-Keller agreed to plead guilty to the murders. On June 25, she entered guilty pleas to 15 charges, including counts accusing her of killing all three victims.
In a separate plea hearing on the same day, Keller pleaded guilty to 14 charges, including counts that accuse him of killing the two adults.
On Sept. 6, Conrad sentenced the Fulks Run couple to life in prison.
Motive For Killing
The Taylors were found by firefighters shot to death in the basement of their home, which had been set on fire in a botched attempt to cover up the crime, police said.
Prosecutors say Taylor-Keller’s desire to kill her ex-husband and his new family was a result of a bitter divorce and custody battle with Taylor over their three children.
Kaylee’s grandfather, Dale Whetzel, who wasn’t told by the prosecutor about the discussion in the judge’s chambers, said he wished prosecutors had pulled the deal.
“We wanted them to go to trial,” Whetzel said. “We wanted them to seek the death penalty for both. I don’t care which [one] pulled the trigger; they both took part in it.”
Keller filed an appeal on Sept. 20, which could void his plea agreement with federal prosecutors and force them to head to trial after all. Prosecutors haven’t filed any court documents indicating they plan to void the plea deal.
Brian McGinn, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to comment. Heaphy did not return a message for comment.
During April’s closed-door hearing, Keller’s public defender, Fred Heblich, cried foul, saying prosecutors couldn’t back out of the deal.
“Your honor, my position is my client entered into a binding and enforceable plea agreement with the United States which, by its language, says it’s binding,” he said, according to the transcripts of the hearing.
He told Conrad that a plea hearing already had been scheduled and the government failed to file a notice to seek the death penalty against his client by the judge’s deadline.
Even if the deal was scrapped, Heblich said, his client intended to plead guilty.
“The worst you can do to him is what he’s already signed up for,” he told Conrad.
Heblich said he would appeal a decision to allow the government to rescind the plea deal, delaying the case even longer.
“So, we may as well put the calendars away for 2013,” he said. “That’s where I see this at the moment.”
Judge: Wrap It Up
Delaying the case further, Conrad made clear in the hearing, would not do. He said he wanted it wrapped up.
First, he said, the move could cause public embarrassment if prosecutors fought to scrap the deal.
“If all this unfolds as has been outlined, it’s going to be a pretty nasty black eye on the government,” he told Heaphy, according to the transcripts. “If some informed decision couldn’t have been made earlier about the way in which to proceed, then perhaps the whole prosecution is faulty.”
Conrad also noted his displeasure with the amount of money being spent, although the document doesn’t outline how much money the prosecution has cost the government.
“This is a matter that I have to deal with that you fellows aren’t directly involved with ... or at least the government’s not, but the costs in this case have been astounding already,” he said. “If we have to go back and redo the entire theory of the case, it’s going to get a lot worse and I’m going to start having problems with Judge Traxler more so than we’ve had already.”
Judge William Traxler is the chief justice of the U.S Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.
Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or email@example.com