EFFINGHAM — In a turn of events Thursday, Justin DeRyke withdrew a request to have his life sentence for murdering his 7-year-old niece, Willow Long, reconsidered.
DeRyke, the younger brother of Willow's mother, pleaded guilty March 18 to murdering Long, whose disappearance last September spawned a search by more than 1,000 volunteers before her body was found less than two days after her mother reported her missing. He filed a motion April 17 to have his natural life, or life in prison without parole, sentence reconsidered.
However, Judge Kimberly Koester said in Effingham County Circuit Court Thursday the same sentence he received in March could be still imposed because the facts of the case show that Willow's murder was accompanied by "exceptionally brutal or heinous behavior accompanied by wanton cruelty."
DeRyke originally agreed to spend the rest of his life in prison on the grounds that he was an adult and his victim was 7 years old. But the 23-year-old DeRyke agreed that his "natural life" sentence could be imposed because of the brutal way in which Willow Long died and accepted the amended sentencing guideline in court Thursday.
Neither DeRyke nor Public Defender Scott Schmidt said why the defendant would accept the revised reasoning for the sentence.
Effingham County State's Attorney Bryan Kibler said Thursday's hearing was nothing more than a "housekeeping mechanism" that put the state on firmer legal ground. Kibler added that there have been legal challenges to the natural life provision in Illinois law that states a natural life sentence can be imposed if the killer is aged 17 or older, and the victim is aged 12 or younger.
"If we hadn't fixed this, he could have come back and challenged his sentence," Kibler said. "I still feel like the statute we sentenced him under was constitutional, but this leaves no doubt."