Smithfield, N.C. — A Selma woman arrested nearly two years ago in the death of an 80-year-old man avoided a potential life prison sentence Thursday when she pleaded guilty to a charge less than first-degree murder.
Crystal Diane Worley entered an Alford plea to a charge of voluntary manslaughter in the June 6, 2010, death of James Eldridge Cooper.
In an Alford plea, a defendant pleads guilty, while maintaining her innocence, and admits it is in her best interest to take the plea deal because there is sufficient evidence that could find her guilty.
"I am now and will always maintain my innocence," Worley said in a statement she read in court."
Cooper had been beaten to death with a hatchet inside his home and robbed of $526 in cash and a ring worth an estimated $125, according to court documents.
A relative found his body three days later.
Worley, who was arrested in December 2010, knew Cooper and had done housework and yard work for him.
She has a criminal record dating to 2001 that includes multiple convictions for larceny and drug-related charges.
In exchange for the plea, a judge sentenced her to six to eight years in prison with credit for time served.
Cooper's children did not want to talk about the plea deal but said in court that they were not happy about it.
"We were not able to tell him goodbye or 'I love you' one last time," Cooper's daughter, Stacey Franks said. "Please know that I do not agree with this plea."
But Johnston County Assistant District Attorney Paul Jackson said in a statement that the state's "difficult decision" to accept the plea deal had to do with the amount and quality of evidence if the case had gone to trial.
After killing and robbing Cooper, Jackson said, Worley left to buy crack cocaine.
A big part of evidence, he said, would be testimony of two drug dealers, and prosecutors were unsure how cooperative they would be and how a jury would view the evidence.
"The state had a duty to recognize that certain evidence uncovered by the very thorough and professional investigation would not be admissible and could not be considered by a jury at trial," Jackson said.
"Our system of justice places an extremely high burden on the state and the victims of crime," he added. "I hope this disposition will at least bring some closure to the family of the victim. My heart and prayers are with them."