Christian Longo is ready to bargain for the very thing he's accused of taking from his family: the chance to live.
Earlier this month, one of Longo's attorneys sent a letter to Lincoln County District Attorney Bernice Barnett, suggesting the two sides meet to see whether the notorious seven-count murder case might be resolved before trial.
The prospect of a possible plea deal in the case has been present almost from the beginning, when it became apparent that Longo was the only real suspect in the deaths of his wife, Maryjane, and their three small children, all of whom were drowned last Christmas season near Newport. (See "The Making of a Murderer (Part 2)," WW, Aug. 21, 2002.)
In seeking to open plea negotiations, Longo's attorneys hope to induce Barnett to take the possibility of the death penalty off the table. Presumably, in return for a life sentence the 28-year-old former Michigan resident might be willing to enter a guilty plea to the charges.
In Oregon, a district attorney can negotiate with a defendant if she feels the "public interest in effective justice" would be served by a plea bargain, and if the defendant acknowledges guilt and shows a willingness to assume responsibility for the criminal conduct.
In this instance, the stakes are particularly high. The Longo case marks the first time Barnett has said she would seek the death penalty since becoming district attorney of the central-coast county in 2001. Barnett, in a recent interview with WW, was reluctant to discuss the prospect of a possible plea bargain, but in previous testimony she'd said her office had no written guidelines on when to ask for the death penalty in aggravated murder cases. The state's criteria for plea bargains in all cases include a provision for the district attorney to consult with the victims.
Some of Maryjane Baker Longo's siblings have said they did not wish to see the death penalty imposed on their former brother-in-law. Longo's parents, the grandparents of three victims, also have been supportive of their son.
Longo's willingness to forgo a trial was probably given impetus by statements he allegedly made to an FBI agent who accompanied him back to the United States from Mexico, where he was arrested Jan. 13. Special Agent Daniel Clegg, the FBI's man in charge of fugitive apprehension in Mexico City, testified that during the plane trip from Cancun to Houston he asked Longo why he had killed his family. According to Clegg, an emotional, sobbing Longo told him he had "sent" his family "to a better place." But, Clegg said, Longo balked when asked how he had committed the murders, saying he wasn't yet ready to provide details about the crimes.
Whether those statements will be admitted in court is still to be decided by Lincoln County Circuit Court Judge Robert Huckleberry. Longo's lawyers have argued that their client was not given the opportunity to speak with a lawyer immediately after his arrest or given a Miranda warning by Clegg before the alleged statements.
Huckleberry is expected to make his ruling on the statements within the next two weeks. If he disallows these statements, Longo's position in a plea bargain will be enhanced; if the judge admits them, the best remaining alternative for Longo's attorneys will be to make a trial as lengthy and costly as possible in an effort to force Barnett to make a deal and spare the cash-strapped county some huge legal bills.