Michael Purnell pleads guilty to murder, rape

Sentencing set for April 4
March 14, 2014

An Oak Orchard man has pleaded guilty to murdering and raping a 70-year old woman in 2011.

Michael Purnell, 44, decided to take a state-offered plea bargain after being deemed mentally competent to stand trial.

Purnell pleaded guilty to five charges: second-degree murder, first-degree rape, first-degree burglary and two charges of possession of a deadly weapon during the course of a felony. He faces a minimum of 36 years in prison with a maximum of life plus 75 years. Purnell’s attorney, Stephanie Tsantes of the Public Defender’s Office, is asking for the minimum sentence, while the Delaware Attorney General’s Office is expected to ask for the maximum.

Purnell will be sentenced in Sussex County Superior Court Friday, April 4.

On Halloween night 2011, Purnell strangled Dorothy Gudger in her home with a belt. Gudger lived alone a few houses away from Purnell in the River Village community in Oak Orchard. Purnell entered Gudger’s home with the intention of raping her and as he did so, he strangled her with a belt. Purnell put a plastic bag over her head to smother her. He then took $40 from Gudger, which witness William Porter said Purnell used to buy crack cocaine.

Delaware State Police arrested Purnell Nov. 2, 2011.

The hulking Purnell towered over bailiffs and attorneys and appeared to be in the neighborhood of six-foot, five-inches tall, clad in a tattered Department of Correction jumpsuit. He answered questions calmly, the most notable being an exchange with Bradley after he had pleaded guilty.

“Did you kill this lady?” Bradley asked.

“Yes,” Purnell said.

“Did you rape her?”

“Yes,” Purnell answered.

All along, Purnell had admitted to police that he had committed the crime, the only questions being whether was he mentally competent to stand trial and would he receive the death penalty. Dr. Susan Rushings testified at Purnell’s March 14 plea hearing that he was competent enough to stand trial. She said Purnell had an intellectual disability, but he understood what he was being accused of and was competent enough to accept the plea offer.

Tsantes said Purnell has been a special education student his whole life whose formal education ended after the 10th grade. She said Purnell did not meet the mental standard to be considered for the death penalty, but Purnell understood he could be jailed for life by accepting the plea deal.

Tsantes said Purnell expressed disappointment that he may never walk out of jail again. When asked by Bradley whether he was satisfied with his attorney’s performance, Purnell said he was.


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