The sisters of Laura McNaughton, Krystal Beardmore, front, and Jacqueline Beardmore, rear, weep after speaking at the sentencing of James Smith Tuesday at the Curry County Courthouse. (CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks)
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
A grain of peace has been given the family of a slain Clovis mother by a Tuesday plea bargain that damns a Clovis dentist to at least 57 years in prison for the murder, kidnap, and attempted rape of their loved one.
“I think we found justice,” said Maria Beardmore, the mother of Laura McNaughton.
McNaughton, 30, was found battered and naked in a rural Curry County ditch in December 2005.
Court proceedings that began early Monday ended Tuesday with the Alford plea of Clovis dentist James Smith in the brutal slaying of McNaughton.
An Alford plea is a form of a guilty plea in which a defendant maintains his or her innocence, but admits there is enough evidence to convince a judge or a jury of his or her guilt and wants to avoid the possible outcome of the trial.
The plea was founded in the 1970 Supreme Court case of North Carolina vs. Alford. Most commonly, it is used in death penalty cases.
Those close to McNaughton said the plea agreement spared them from more pain.
“The last two days have been so hard. I can’t imagine six weeks of this (court proceedings),” Beardmore said.
“It was easier on the family and my grandchildren. We want this behind us. We want to try to adjust to life without Laura,” she said.
McNaughton is the mother of two, young girls, ages 6 and 12.
“I think James Smith knew it was a lost cause,” McNaugton’s aunt, Lucille Rosser, said from a Curry County courtroom.
“I would love to have seen him get up and admit to what he did. … I would have loved to have seen him get the death penalty. … But this was maybe the best route to go,” Rosser said.
This way McNaughton’s loved ones can avoid a long, painful trial and the possibility of appeals, Rosser said.
Ninth Judicial District Attorney Matt Chandler regarded Tuesday’s plea bargain as a triumph.
“The bottom line is that it’s a guilty plea and it’s a conviction,” Chandler said.
Even if Smith denies the murder of McNaughton “for the next 100 years, he will still be behind bars,” Chandler said.
Smith’s defense attorney declined comment.
Late Monday night, Chandler said he was contacted at home by Smith’s defense counsel, who advised him Smith was interested in pleading guilty. The call followed court proceedings Monday in which a judge ruled prosecutors in the Smith case could pursue the death penalty.
Chandler said he would not have settled for any bargain in which Smith would not spend the rest of his life behind bars. That, he said, was a promise he made to McNaughton’s family.
Because Smith pleaded guilty pursuant to Alford, he can never appeal his case and, furthermore, sentencing is delivered as if the plea were a guilty plea, according to Chandler.
Mounds of evidence against Smith were culled by Clovis and Curry County law enforcement, Chandler said.
“This was a prosecutor’s dream case,” Chandler said of the evidence collected.
But a steel case is not what matters most, Chandler said.
“You have to set aside your own personal agenda and do what is best for the family,” Chandler said.
The man the Alford plea was named for, Henry Alford, was indicted for first-degree murder in 1963, according to multiple law-related Web sites. On the advice of his attorney, Alford pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in order to avoid the death penalty.
Alford then appealed his 30-year sentence on grounds that he was innocent but pleaded guilty to escape the death penalty.
In 1968, a federal appeals court ruled Alford’s guilty plea involuntary because its principal motivation was fear of the death penalty and advised that the court should have rejected the guilty plea.
But in 1970, the Supreme Court reversed that ruling, stating that courts could accept guilty pleas from defendants who maintained their innocence, thus establishing the Alford plea.