Leigha Ackerson gets maximum prison sentence for role in Kelley murder | VailDaily.com

Leigha Ackerson gets maximum prison sentence for role in Kelley murder

Judge: ’Jacob White certainly deserves a large degree of responsibility. But in the end, so do you’

Leigha Ackerson, 27, was sentenced Friday to life in prison without parole and an additional 48 years in prison for her role in the January 2018 murder of Catherine Kelley in Kelley's home near Edwards. At the hearing, Ackerson said she plans to appeal her conviction.
Tom Lotshaw/Vail Daily file photo

EAGLE — Leigha Ackerson on Friday was sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus an additional 48 years in prison, for her role in the January 2018 murder of Catherine Kelley inside Kelley’s home near Edwards.

Tearful family and friends of Kelley, who was 74, shared their thoughts about the senseless killing and how it has devastated their lives, asking for the maximum possible prison sentence for Ackerson, which she received.

“Trying to explain how much this has impacted me and my family, I could go on for days about it,” Kelley’s daughter Denise Tavani told District Court Judge Paul. R. Dunkelman.

Tavani said she hasn’t slept a full night in almost three years and has developed a fear of strangers. She said she still reaches for the phone to call her mother and is repeatedly struck by the horrifying reality of what happened.

“Nothing will change anything, make my mother come back or make this go away. But to have (Ackerson) get any slack cut by you, anything less than the full extent of the law, would just add to that punch in the gut I feel every day,” Tavani told Judge Dunkelman.

Other friends and family spoke about the fears they now have of finding someone has broken into their homes, and the struggles of grappling with the senseless loss of Kelley, who was a wonderful person, vibrant, full of life and kind to all.

Catherine Kelley’s niece, Donna Hollingsworth, a superior court judge in Los Angeles County, said the news of Kelley’s murder struck her as apocalyptic.

“I got the call when I was on the bench,” Hollingsworth told the court. “I couldn’t believe this happened to my family, to my aunt who in my eyes was such a rock star to me, everything I ever aspired to be as a human and a female.”

Ackerson, 27, and her husband, Jacob White, 26, broke into Kelley’s home in the gated community of Pilgrim Downs near Edwards, seeking warmth and food after a failed and ill-equipped attempt to live off the land in the nearby wilderness in January 2018.

They could have just left the home, Hollingsworth said.

Instead, they confronted Kelley after Kelley returned home unexpectedly, strangled her to death as she got up from a couch to get them food from the kitchen, and then mutilated her body.

“Even as a judge, what I’ve seen, the horrible things I’ve seen, this to me felt apocalyptic. It was pure evil,” Hollingsworth said of the crime.

White, whose DNA was found on the rope used to strangle Kelley and admitted to killing her, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the crime and was sentenced to 68 years in prison. He must serve at least 75% of that prison time.

Ackerson decided to take her chances at trial rather than accept a plea agreement that would have had her serving 64 years in prison, “four years less than (Jacob White) the monster who brutally murdered Ms. Kelley,” her defense attorney Jennifer Henslee said Friday.

After a three-week trial and 27 hours of deliberation, a jury convicted Ackerson of first-degree murder felony murder, first-degree burglary, aggravated robbery, conspiracy to commit burglary and aggravated robbery, and criminal trespass.

Prosecutors on Friday also asked Judge Dunkelman to impose the most severe possible sentence for Ackerson.

“This was so unnecessary,” Joe Kirwan, chief deputy district attorney for the 5th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, said of the crime. “I didn’t know Catherine Kelley, but I know she would have given them the $50 in her purse. She would have fed them. She probably would have let them spend the night in her house, and she probably would have given them a ride to get them wherever they needed to go.”

“This was so brutal, so vicious, and the way they abused her remains, some would say it’s deranged,” Kirwan said.

Ackerson plans to appeal

Ackerson also took the stand Friday to ask for mercy in her sentencing. She said she plans to appeal her conviction, at one point saying that she, too, is a victim of White and “a wonderful woman.”

In her trial, Ackerson testified that White repeatedly abused and threatened her. She said that she was fearful for her life as White — who had become increasingly erratic and deranged and violent toward her — led her into the woods and then, after days with no food or water, into Kelley’s home before ultimately killing Kelley.

Prosecutors argued Ackerson had opportunities to escape and report White. They also argued she was actively involved in the decision to confront and kill Kelley, and that she told her husband to murder Kelley, based on the testimony of Heather Sellers, a convicted felon who briefly shared a cell with Ackerson and testified that Ackerson had confided in her about the crime.

“Hearing all the words spoken today, hearing all these fears that have developed in all these people’s lives that should have never had an opportunity to develop, I also have those fears. I didn’t sleep for years, I still struggle every day, because although this court saw pictures I was there,” Ackerson said.

Ackerson said she is sorry for the “loss and tragedy that cannot be over-exaggerated.”

“This court did decide, this prosecution did decide, to give the person guilty completely of this crime, of all this crime, they gave him 68 years and I fear for when he gets out,” Ackerson told the court.

“Going through this trial, I sought justice because I’ve always believed in the justice system,” Ackerson said. “And although I think I still believe in the justice system, I will take this to appeal. I don’t stand as a guilty person in the eyes of anyone who has ever known me … I don’t want to negate any words spoken today. They were spoken with the gravity of truth and pain and grievance for something that should never have happened. But I’m a wonderful woman, too. And I have stood up for myself as best I can.”

Judge Dunkelman told Ackerson there were decisions she made that led to her awaiting sentencing for the charges Friday. He sentenced her to life in prison without parole for the felony murder charge, and to an additional 48 years in prison for the burglary and conspiracy charges.

“Jacob White certainly deserves a large degree of responsibility. But in the end, so do you. You participated in what can only be called a vicious murder of an innocent woman,” Dunkelman said.

“This family has lost their mother, their aunt, their grandmother, their sister, and they have to go to bed every night understanding that was done in the most brutal of fashions. The community has to live with that same knowledge. The court does believe that in this case, given the facts, the most severe sentence is appropriate.”

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