Crime

Two plead guilty in Clay County drug case, avoid murder charge and possible death penalty

Two men pleaded guilty Tuesday in a Clay County drug case, avoiding trial on a charge that they had plotted to murder a supposed informant.

Federal prosecutors had considered whether to seek death sentences against Jimmy D. Benge and Gerald Lee Sizemore, but the plea deals announced Tuesday would eliminate that potential in the slaying of Eli Marcum.

Instead, Benge, 51, pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell pain pills. Sizemore, 53, pleaded guilty to taking part in the conspiracy and possessing a gun, which he was barred from doing as a convicted felon.

Their agreements with prosecutors call for a sentence of 20 years for Benge and 15 years for Sizemore. Benge also would have to pay $23,500 to satisfy a forfeiture charge and $6,500 in restitution.

The pleas are binding, meaning those are the sentences the two will receive if U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar accepts the plea agreements. Judges normally accept such plea agreements, but they aren't required to do so.

Benge was charged with heading a drug operation from September 2011 to October 2012, paying addicts and drug runners to get prescriptions at clinics in other states, then sold the pain pills in Clay County.

In addition, a federal grand jury charged that Benge, Sizemore and Renus "Red" Delph plotted to kill Marcum in December 2012 because of a suspicion that Marcum had given information to authorities about Benge's drug operation.

Benge paid or promised to pay to have Marcum killed, and Sizemore committed the murder, the grand jury charged. The grand jury made special findings under which federal prosecutors could seek the death penalty for them.

In the federal judicial system, the nation's top prosecutor makes the final decision whether to seek a death sentence. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had not announced a decision about whether to seek the death penalty for Benge and Sizemore before attorneys worked out pleas.

Delph pleaded guilty in October, admitting he helped dump Marcum's body on an old logging road after he saw Sizemore stab Marcum, according to court documents.

Sizemore set Marcum's body on fire, Delph said.

Marcum's daughter, Sarah Spurlock, told Thapar at Tuesday's hearing that her father taught her love and kindness and pushed her to go to college. Marcum, 62, also had a debilitating drug problem, and he pleaded with her not to follow his example, Spurlock said.

"Addiction led him to a death that still haunts me every day," said Spurlock, who is a teacher.

Spurlock said Marcum's family accepted the plea deals in part out of a concern that the charges against Benge and Sizemore could be dismissed because of a challenge, or that they might be acquitted at trial.

Attorneys for Sizemore and Benge have argued the indictment should be dismissed because a state police detective — who later resigned — threw away a small knife found on the all-terrain vehicle trail leading to Marcum's body and a piece of telephone cord found near his body.

Defense attorneys argued that police should have preserved the items for them to test, which could have helped in asserting that Benge and Sizemore were not involved in the crime.

Thapar had not ruled on the motion to dismiss because he hadn't finished hearing evidence. However, he said Tuesday that he was troubled by the evidence he'd heard.

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