Joseph Scott Hatley, 42, the man accused of killing Susan Jeanette Woods in 1987, pleaded guilty to murder Tuesday and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
The plea agreement came less than one week before his trial was scheduled to begin in the 266th Judicial District Court. District Attorney John Terrill said Woods' family takes “great comfort” in the sentence, which requires Hatley to serve at least 10 years before he is eligible for parole and forces him to give up any rights to an appeal. If convicted at trial, Hatley could have been sentenced to life in prison.
“All things considered, I think this was a just result,” Terrill said.
Hatley's court-appointed attorney, Alan Nash, said the plea agreement provided closure to the “mystery” surrounding the case that stumped investigators and went unsolved for two decades.
“Given the complexity of the 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 that is beneficial to all parties,” Nash said.
Woods' father discovered his daughter's body on July 28, 1987, partly submerged inside a bathtub in her Stephenville home. Investigators working the case determined she had been dead for two to three days. According to the medical examiner, Woods died of asphyxiation due to either strangulation or drowning, Terrill said.
Despite an intense investigation by detectives originally assigned to the case, the mystery of who killed Woods, who was 30 at the time of her death, remained unsolved until last year when a break in the case led authorities to Hatley.
Terrill credited Lieutenant Don Miller with the Stephenville Police Department for helping solve what was deemed a “cold case.”
Last year, Miller took several fingerprints lifted from the crime scene to the Texas Department of Public Safety Lab in Austin and ran them through the automated fingertip identification system, where a match with Hatley was made.
Hatley, who lived with his wife and children in Williamson County, was later arrested and brought back to Erath County to face a murder charge.
Terrill said the crime scene indicated that a sexual assault had occurred, but there was no DNA evidence to substantiate it.
“The evidence in this case is more than 20 years old. It was a true cold case and would not have been solved if not for excellent police work by the Stephenville Police Department and particularly the work of 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.”
Terrill said a separate case in Williamson County is still pending against Hatley, which involves an assault against his wife.
SARA VANDEN BERGE is Managing Editor of the Empire-Tribune. She can be reached at 254-968-2379, ext. 240.