Denair daughter pleads guilty in attack on parents that killed father

rahumada@modbee.comJanuary 9, 2014 

A Denair woman on Thursday pleaded guilty to stabbing her father to death and beating her mother and was ordered to spend at least six months in a mental health facility.

Doctors determined that Shanna Wills, 20, was suffering from mental illness when she attacked her parents, Kenneth Wills and Susan Wills, inside the family’s home on Mother’s Day three years ago. Her 62-year-old father died in the attack, and her mother survived her injuries.

Wills, who was 17 at the time of the attack, told the judge she understood the details of the plea deal. She cried softly and wiped away tears as the judge described the charges in court.

In a preliminary hearing, a sheriff’s deputy who responded to the scene said he walked into what looked like a horror story. Wills’ mother and father lay bleeding in a hallway while the defendant was nude and motionless in a bathtub overflowing with water.

The attack occurred about 8:15 p.m. May 8, 2011, at the home in the 3000 block of Salluce Drive. During the attack, Wills told her parents, “You’re not going to die, I made you angels,” according to Susan Wills’ preliminary hearing testimony.

The defendant was prosecuted as an adult. Her trial was scheduled to start Jan. 21.

Two court-appointed doctors examined Wills while in custody. They determined that during the attack, she was “incapable of knowing or understanding that her acts were morally or legally wrong,” Stanislaus Superior Court Judge John Freeland said in court. Two other doctors questioned Wills and reviewed the case history, including a mental health expert hired by the prosecution.

“Four doctors examined her; they all came to the same conclusion,” Deputy District Attorney Randy Fischer told the judge.

Wills pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon with an enhancement for causing great bodily injury, felonies that could have resulted in a maximum sentence of 21 years to life in prison.

But Wills will not be ordered to spend any time in prison because the court has ruled that she is not guilty by reason of insanity based on the doctors’ conclusions.

She will remain at the Stanislaus County jail until she can be transferred to a state hospital to receive treatment for at least six months. She will not be released until doctors and the court determine she has fully restored her sanity and is no longer a threat to the public. The judge warned Wills that the doctors could keep her in the hospital for the rest of her life.

If the hospital releases her, there’s an extensive process she has to undergo while her behavior will be continually monitored, said Deputy Public Defender Greg Spiering, Wills’ attorney.

He said Wills would be under a conditional release from the hospital, meaning she could spend time in another secured facility, a halfway house or a board and care facility with fewer restrictions. She could be subject to strict curfews and drug testing, a process that could continue for the rest of her life. And she can always be sent back to the hospital if her behavior regresses.

Spiering said the case was tragic for all involved, but it produced the appropriate outcome. “I’m grateful that the district attorney’s office and the (mental health) experts got it right,” he said after Thursday’s hearing.

The prosecutor agreed the plea agreement was the proper resolution to the case. “It’s the right thing to do,” Fischer said outside of the courtroom. “The district attorney’s office is not in the business of seeking convictions. The district attorney’s office is in the business of seeking the truth.”

The prosecutor said he already has spoken with the defendant’s mother, the surviving victim, about the plea deal and explained to her the doctors’ conclusions. He said Susan Wills appeared to show “a sense of some relief” with the outcome of the case.

Spiering said he also has been in contact with Susan Wills, who has moved out of the state since the attack at her Denair home. He said the defendant’s mother was pleased with the outcome. He said Wills and her mother have worked on a reconciliation as part of the defendant’s mental health treatment.

In a hearing last month, Shanna Wills testified that she told a psychologist she has salvaged her relationship with her mother. “By God’s grace, we have been able to talk to each other,” Wills said.

She also testified that she told the psychologist she is no longer psychotic and the medication she was taking while in custody was helping to improve her mental health.

Spiering fought hard in court for Wills to stay at the Stanislaus County juvenile hall until she was 19, even though underage inmates are usually transferred to the adult jail on their 18th birthday. He said he was appreciative of the staff at the juvenile hall who helped with Wills’ treatment, especially Sean Kiely. “He went above and beyond the requirements of his job to help her,” Spiering said.

The defense attorney says his client’s mental health now is a stark contrast to the behavior she exhibited three years ago.

Her mother testified that she arrived home about 6:30 p.m. and found the floors littered with rose petals of all colors. In the kitchen, all the drinking glasses on the shelves were filled with water, a few of them with rose stems. The house had been decorated by her daughter.

On the kitchen table, there was a bowl of water with tangerines floating in it and a vase with more rose stems. She saw her daughter running around and waving her arms. “Oh, don’t you just love it? Happy Mother’s Day,” Wills told her mother, referring to the strange decorations.

Susan Wills went into her bedroom and heard loud voices and an apparent struggle. She walked out and found a broken porcelain horse statue on the floor. Her daughter picked up one of the larger broken pieces and sliced her father’s forehead.

She tried to stop the attack on her husband. The assault continued as Wills attacked both her parents with a variety of household items, including a vacuum cleaner, a 3-foot-tall electric fan and a 6-inch brass horse. Authorities said Wills then stabbed her parents with a decorative knife with an eagle on the handle.

“It was not my Shanna,” Susan Wills testified in June 2012. “My Shanna wouldn’t have done that.”

As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dropped an attempted murder charge in the attack on Susan Wills.

Freeland told the defendant she could face a maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison if she is convicted of another felony, even one not as serious such as theft. The two charges she pleaded guilty to are considered strikes under the state’s “three strikes” law.

The judge scheduled Wills to return to court Feb. 10 to determine which hospital she will be sent to and what type of treatment she will receive.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.

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