DOVER, Del. — A judge has granted probation to an inmate who was sent back to prison to finish a sentence for murder after Delaware’s Supreme Court reversed a ruling that had freed her.
Superior Court Judge Noel Primos suspended Catherine Culp’s prison sentence for time served, followed by two years on probation.
“The court finds that Ms. Culp has been fully restored as a useful and constructive member of society and poses no danger to the community,” Primos wrote in his decision, issued Thursday.
Culp, 58, was initially sentenced to life in prison for the 1998 shooting death of her boyfriend, Lee Hicks. Following a retrial, she was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced in 2001 to 25 years in prison. Her release date, with “good time” credit, was March 2019.
Culp was freed on probation for about nine months in 2016, moving to Florida to live with her brother and sister, after a judge concluded that her model conduct in prison and extensive rehabilitation efforts amounted to “extraordinary circumstances” justifying a sentence modification.
In reducing Culp’s sentence, Judge Robert Young cited a host of her achievements behind bars, including earning an associate’s degree, teaching classes, tutoring inmates and training other tutors. He also noted that Culp had earned a computer operator certificate and had completed courses in Spanish, culinary arts, women’s health, public speaking, dancing and floral design.
The state Supreme Court reversed Young’s ruling, saying court rules barred the judge from considering a second motion for sentence reduction by Culp after a similar motion had been denied in 2003. The justices also noted that participation in educational and rehabilitative programs does not, in and of itself, constitute “extraordinary circumstances.”
The Supreme Court also noted that the Department of Correction had not filed an application on Culp’s behalf with the Board of Parole. Under Delaware’s criminal code, a judge can modify a sentence based on an application by the DOC “for good cause shown which certifies that the release of the defendant shall not constitute a substantial risk to the community or the defendant’s own self.”
Last year, the DOC did file an application on Culp’s behalf, stating that officials do not believe she is a danger to herself or the community. The parole board voted 4-to-1 to recommend that Culp be granted probation, saying she was “fully rehabilitated.”
Prosecutors opposed a sentence reduction, noting that Culp has maintained that Hicks’ death was an accident while the evidence suggested otherwise, and that she has given conflicting and contradictory statements about what happened.
In his ruling, Primos said Culp’s rehabilitation was demonstrated by the fact that, after the Supreme Court decision, she returned voluntarily and at her own expense to Delaware to serve the remainder of her sentence.
“It was surely a painful experience for Ms. Culp to be returned to custody after tasting nine months of freedom, believing that her days of incarceration were behind her,” wrote Primos, expressing skepticism that another year behind bars would have “further significant punitive value.”