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Billy Gilley's resentencing hearing set to start today

By sanne specht

The resentencing hearing for convicted triple murderer Billy Frank Gilley Jr. begins today. At issue is whether Gilley will continue to serve three consecutive life sentences, or soon be eligible for parole.

A juror in the case, Lanore Soulagnet, is still haunted by questions about what really happened April 26, 1984, that bloody night when the 18-year-old beat his parents and youngest sister to death with a baseball bat in west Medford.

"I just want to know something from Billy Gilley about what happened the night of the murders," said Soulagnet, 58. "Anything. But we never heard a thing from the defense."

Looking back to the three-day November trial in Judge Mitchell Karaman's courtroom, Soulagnet said she and fellow jurors had no choice but to find the emotionless teen guilty of killing his parents, Billy Sr. and Linda, and 11-year-old Becky.

Soulagnet's most vivid memory is the moment when she realized her questions were not going to be answered. Gilley's attorney, Stephen Pickens, stood up — after calling not a single defense witness — and said, "The defense rests."

"That was it," said Soulagnet. "That's basically all he said. What do you do with that?"

No evidence was given to refute or mitigate the facts presented by the state regarding the grisly crimes, she said.

"My mouth dropped. It was gut-wrenching. Everybody has some defense. Even the most heinous criminal around gets a defense," Soulagnet said.

Gilley, now 43, has never denied the killings. He has, however, appealed his sentence — three consecutive life terms of a minimum of 30 years each.

After spending 24 years in prison, Gilley in May was granted the right to a resentencing hearing by the U.S. District Court in Portland. The district court's decision was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on grounds that then-18-year-old Gilley did not have effective legal representation.

Paul Beneke, the public defense lawyer who represents Gilley now, said his client is back where he was nearly a quarter-century ago — awaiting sentencing.

Gilley's trial began on Nov. 14, 1984. Pickens called no witnesses and cross-examined only one, the prosecution's star witness, Gilley's 16-year-old sister, Jody. He did not introduce his client's well-documented history of abuse at the hands of his parents.

Although the concept of the victim-offender was not well-established in 1984, evidence of Billy's abuse could have been introduced as mitigation for sentencing purposes. It was not.

Court records show that Pickens' only defense exhibit was a small photo presented at 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 14, 1984. At 1:39 p.m. on Nov. 15, both the state and the defense rested. At 1:59 p.m., Pickens gave a closing argument that lasted less than three minutes. At 2:11 p.m. the same afternoon, the jury retired to deliberate. On Nov. 16, at 9:54 a.m., the jury returned its verdict, finding the teen guilty of thee counts of aggravated murder.

Pickens told a reporter at the time his client did not want to testify. Gilley now claims from jail that he did want to testify.

Subpoenaed as a witness for the state in today's hearing, Pickens said Monday the question of Gilley's guilt was resolved 24 years ago.

"I have no interest in (discussing) that," he said. Pickens said he is aware of the ongoing speculation about whether he did an adequate job defending his teenage client.

But when asked if Gilley had been a cooperative client, or to supply a reason for such an abbreviated defense, Pickens said he is still bound by attorney-client privilege.

"Anything that he and I talked about is still strictly confidential. I can't talk about it, even though I am the one who is attacked and such. The only person who can break that confidentiality is the client himself. And you'll just have to wait and see what happens," Pickens said.

Gilley showed no emotion during the trial, giving jurors nothing to go by other than the state's evidence, Soulagnet said.

"He was very young. It was chilling how young he was. But what were we supposed to do? From what I remember, he had planned to kill the parents. But the sister definitely wasn't intentional. We felt he was in some kind of state from killing the parents, and when the little sister came down the stairs, she was killed too," said Soulagnet.

That Gilley took a shower and then went to the neighbor's house with Jody and played cards after the killings was "just totally weird," Soulagnet said.

Beneke and Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston will present their arguments before Circuit Court Judge Ray White. Unfortunately for Soulagnet, the odds are short that either Gilley or Pickens will provide answers to her questions, even if they testify at the two-day hearing.

One thing is certain: Gilley will not have the chance to tell his story before a jury during his resentencing for the murders. White decided earlier this year that a jury is not required to hear arguments that could decide whether Gilley was unfairly handed three consecutive life sentences for the murders, said Beneke.

Soulagnet currently resides in Arizona. She was serving as a reserve officer for the Central Point Police Department in 1984. Because of her connection with the police, she never thought she'd be seated on Gilley's murder trial.

"But I was. And you just never forget it," she said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

Billy Gilley's resentencing hearing set to start today