COLUMBIA — Although police found Daniel Sanders with his mother's body and a shovel, prosecutors said they lacked the evidence to convict him of murder.
So they offered him a deal. And he took it.
Sanders, 20, pleaded guilty Tuesday afternoon in the 13th Circuit Court to voluntary manslaughter and felony evidence tampering for drowning his mother, Helen Sanders, and attempting to hide her body. The prosecution recommended a 15-year sentence and a four-year sentence for Sanders, to be served consecutively.
Police pulled over Sanders in August 2008 for driving erratically, and were in the process of arresting him when they found his mother's body in the trunk.
Sanders sat still throughout the hearing and was expressionless as Boone County Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler entered his plea. When it was over, he shuffled away, and his gait belied the sudden end that had just been brought to his 18-month prosecution.
Assistant Boone County Prosecutor Andy Scholz said he would rather give Sanders 19 years than chance giving him nothing.
"This case had definite trial risks," Scholz said.
Scholz said he was worried that the jury would ask questions — about the drowning, in particular — that the prosecution wouldn't be able to answer.
Much remains unanswered about the case. The initial indictment said that Sanders had help in drowning his mother, and investigators still suspect a family connection.
When officers arrested Sanders, they also detained his younger brother, Gary Sanders, who was named a suspect in the case. Gary Sanders, then 16, has never been charged. Scholz said Gary Sanders was still a suspect, but there were no plans to arrest him.
Daniel Sanders will not testify against his younger brother, Scholz said, and neither brother has implicated the other; both invoked their right to remain silent to investigators.
The plea agreement came before Oxenhandler could decide on a motion that Daniel Sanders' lawyer, Christopher Slusher, filed in January. The motion said the discovery of the body was inadmissible because Sanders asked for an attorney during the stop, so the vehicle search was unconstitutional.
The motion was dropped as a result of the plea deal. A ruling for Sanders on the motion would have hamstrung the prosecution's case, so before Oxenhandler would take Sanders' plea, he wanted to make sure Sanders understood.
"Barn door's closed, you understand that?" Oxenhandler asked.
"Yes, sir," Sanders said.