Man sentenced in 1987 murder

By Jane Pratt
Special to the Reporter-News
Tuesday, October 9, 2007

STEPHENVILLE -- Joseph Scott Hatley, 42, pleaded guilty to a 20-year-old murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison Tuesday by an Erath County district court.

Hatley must pay a $5,000 fine and reimburse the county for court-appointed attorney's fees and court costs.

He waived his right to appeal the sentence.

A trial date of Oct. 15 had been set for Hatley, who was indicted in October 2006 for murder in connection with the death of Susan Jeanette Woods on July 28, 1987. She was found by her father in her home on July 31, 1987. It was estimated she had been dead for about three days.

She was bound with her head in the water in the bathtub. Autopsy reports listed asphyxia as the cause of death.

A new indictment was handed down in June 2007 to allow prosecutors to argue that Hatley was attempting to sexually assault Woods at the time of the murder. The new indictment did not charge him with attempted sexual assault, but would have given the jury the option of finding him guilty of either murder or murder while committing another felony.

District Attorney John Terrill said the guilty plea and the sentence were the result of a plea bargain between his office and Hatley's attorney, Alan Nash.

"The evidence in this case was over 20 years old. It was a true 'cold case,' and the case would not have been solved if not for the excellent police work by the Stephenville Police Department and particularly the work of investigator Don Miller," Terrill said. "We hear about people who are exonerated of crimes by DNA or other scientific evidence. However, here we have one individual who was caught and convicted because of forensic, technical and database information that only recently became available to police investigators."

Miller entered fingerprints found at the crime scene into a state crime computer and got a match, which caused the investigation to be reopened.

The Round Rock police, Texas Rangers and Texas Department of Public Safety assisted in the investigation.

"This agreement provides some closure to the uncertainty and mystery surrounding this tragedy for two local families, and this is a resolution which spares Susan's family the added pain of a protracted trial," said Nash.

"Given the complexity of this case, the unpleasant circumstances surrounding Susan's death, the age of the evidence, and the complicated, contentious evidentiary issues which would be addressed by the court at trial, it is a resolution which is beneficial to all parties and the defendant."

Because of the law in effect at the time of the offense, Hatley will be eligible for parole after serving one-third, or 10 years, of the sentence.

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