Michael Purnell, who pleaded guilty to murdering and raping a 70-year-old Oak Orchard woman on Halloween 2011, was sentenced April 29 to two life sentences and 75 years in prison.
Clad in a tattered white Department of Corrections jumpsuit, the towering Purnell, 45, did not say anything in his defense to Delaware Superior Court Judge E. Scott Bradley. Purnell admitted in open court March 14 that he raped Dorothy Gudger, strangled her with her own belt and then, when he noticed she was still breathing, tied a plastic bag around her head.
Members of Gudger’s family were present at the sentencing. Gudger’s daughter, Carol Taylor, said she hated Purnell and hated that he gets to live. Purnell, who state and defense psychologists agreed has an intellectual disability, was deemed mentally competent to stand trial, but did not meet the mental threshold to be eligible for the death penalty.
Taylor, who spoke on behalf of the family, said her mother was deserving of a good life and a dignified death. She said her mother also lacked an education, but never used it as an excuse, as Purnell had.
“She wasn’t just some lady. My mother was like my sidekick,” Taylor said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my mom or how my mother died. My mother’s death is completely senseless.”
Taylor said her mother would often accompany her and her kids on trips to Georgia. She said Gudger left a trail of good deeds behind her, including raising her and her sister. Taylor said everyday items like belts and plastic bags serve as a constant reminder of how her mother died.
“I hope that my mother haunts him,” she said of Purnell. “I hope it gives him nightmares, because it does for me.”
Deputy Attorney General Martin Cosgrove said the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Purnell was a neighbor in Gudger’s River Village community in Oak Orchard. He said Purnell, who already had an extensive criminal record and was classified during prosecution for Gudger's murder as a high risk to once again commit a sexual crime, had done yardwork for Gudger in the past.
Cosgrove said on Halloween night 2011, Purnell raped and strangled the 100-pound Gudger and then tied a bag over her head. After committing the crime, Purnell, who also took $40 from Gudger, went to a neighbor’s house and smoked crack. Gudger’s neighbors later called the police saying they had not seen her for two days, Cosgrove said.
He asked Bradley for justice for Gudger’s family and to protect society from Purnell. Cosgrove asked for the maximum sentence: life sentences for first-degree rape and second-degree murder, 25 years each for two counts of possession of a deadly weapon while committing felony and 25 years for first-degree burglary.
Purnell’s attorney, Stephanie Tsantes, said Purnell understands that he will spend the rest of his life in an institutional setting. She said Purnell pleaded guilty because he did not want to put Gudger’s family or his own family through a trial. Tsantes’ only request was for Purnell to be held at Sussex Correctional Institute in Georgetown where his mother could visit.
Bradley said there was nothing he could do for Gudger’s family to make them happier before issuing the maximum sentence.
“I don’t think any lesser sentence would be adequate,” Bradley said.