Court upholds first-degree murder sentence in house fire case that killed 4 children

By Erianne Leatherman | Mar 17, 2018

MOUNT VERNON – The 5th District Appellate Court of Illinois has upheld a first-degree murder sentence and conviction for a Cutler man relating to a house fire he intentionally set in 2013.  

Derrick Twardoski was charged in 2013 with four counts of first-degree murder of four children - Ethan, Kailey, Brandan and Landan Owen - when he set their house on fire in Percy after he thought the owners of the home had stolen some goods from him, according to the Feb. 20 order written by Justice David Overstreet. 

Twardoski took a plea agreement that lowered the charges to one count of first-degree murder and then pleaded guilty to that charge. The plea agreement also required him to waive his right to a jury trial.

The court then charged him in the death of Kailey Owen, “subject to a stipulated bench trial,” court documents state. “In exchange, the state stated that it would not seek natural life imprisonment and would thereby dismiss counts one, two and four of the information.” 

Justice David Overstreet  

Twardoski was convicted and sentenced to 53 years in prison in 2014 and most recently appealed that conviction.

“He appeals the conviction, arguing that his stipulated bench trial was tantamount to a guilty plea and that the circuit court failed to properly admonish him pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 402(a) (eff. July 1, 2012)," court documents state. "The defendant also argues that the circuit court improperly considered the victim’s death and the community’s outrage as aggravating factors at sentencing. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.”

At the time of the trial, victim impact statements were heard, and his felon status and criminal background were considered.

“The court further stated that it found ‘that the defendant’s conduct caused great serious harm to another[,] not only the victim in this case, but also the victim’s family as evidenced by the victim impact statements.’”

Twardoski also said that the circuit court failed to comply with Rule 402 since the court did not tell him that he did not have to plead guilty.

“Therefore, this failure to adequately admonish him requires his conviction to be vacated,” court documents stated. “However, when the defendant entered his stipulation, the circuit court admonished the defendant of the nature of the first-degree murder charge and of the minimum sentence of 20 years and the maximum sentence of 60 years in the Department of Corrections.”

The court found that, “Although the defendant’s stipulated bench trial was tantamount to a guilty plea, the defendant was sufficiently admonished pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 402(a) (eff. July 1, 2012), and the circuit court did not rely on improper factors in sentencing,” according to the order.

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