HAZARD—A Perry County man charged in a triple murder case last year may have escaped execution after taking a plea deal late last month for three life sentences.
Dalton Stidham, 22, of Hazard, was indicted on three counts of murder in February 2013 for the shooting deaths of Caitlin Cornett, Jackie Cornett, and Taylor Cornett in the parking lot of the First Federal Center at HCTC in Hazard on January 15 during a custody exchange. Caitlin and Jackie Cornett were pronounced dead at the scene, while 12-year-old Taylor Cornett died at the University of Kentucky medical center the following day.
Stidham refused to enter into a plea early on in the proceedings. His attorney, Will Collins, with the Perry County Public Defender’s Office, explained at the time that this was not to deny what had happened but was meant to allow for more time for evidence to be collected in the case. A not guilty plea was therefore entered for Stidham by Perry County Circuit Judge Bill Engle.
Perry County Commonwealth’s Attorney John Hansen filed a motion in March 2013 to seek the death penalty in the triple-murder case, but, almost one year later to the day, offered Stidham a plea deal for three life sentences to serve.
“It was a decision pretty much made jointly between myself and a couple of members of the (Cornett) family, and I understood where they’re coming from, and as the Commonwealth there’s no reason for me to put this family through much more than they need to go through,” Hansen explained.
Hansen explained that recent discussions with the family of Caitlin, Jackie, and Taylor Cornett led to the decision to drop the pursuit of the death penalty in the case based on the results of previous cases where the death penalty was sought.
“They (the family) are at peace with the decision. I would have liked to have seen the death penalty, but I know what happens once the death penalty is granted. I know what happens when the death penalty is overturned, which more than likely it is,” Hansen said.
Hansen explained that he had no issues with going to trial with the case, adding that a trial might not have been the most difficult part of this journey for the Cornett family.
“The problem is not necessarily the trial, we trust Perry County jurors would have done the right thing, the biggest problem was the ongoing debate of the death penalty that is still going on in the court of appeals in Kentucky and the federal courts,” he said. “The problem we’re having is what the court of appeals in Kentucky would have done, and inevitably what possibly a federal court would have done.”
Hansen said since the death penalty is such a controversial issue in the state and country, it would be likely that there would be a long and arduous appeals process for the family in the years to come.
“If a death penalty decision is overturned for any reason, which they frequently are, that kind of takes away from the family. It’s as if something is taken away. I have the discretion to take it to the death penalty or not, but it’s also my discretion to determine how much more emotional turmoil I need to put this family through,” Hansen said.
Hansen said last week that Judge Engle had not accepted the plea deal yet, and he thought it would be unlikely that it would not be accepted. A sentencing hearing was set for June 6, according to documents obtained from the Perry County Courthouse.
Hansen explained that if the deal is not accepted, though, the case will go back to the pursuit of the death penalty.
“We’d go on to trial, we’d have a death penalty case. We start from square one,” he said. “This family has gone through just quite a bit and the fact that they are at peace with this decision kind of will definitely hold me at bay and I’m not going any further with the case unless the judge rejects it.”
Amelia Holliday can be reached at 66-436-5771, or on Twitter @HazardHerald.