Life in prison: Santiago pleads guilty in deal with prosecutors
Joseph Ian Santiago pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of first-degree murder Monday in Carroll County Circuit Court and was sentenced to life in prison for the January 2017 slaying of his older brother, Alex.
Santiago entered the plea as part of an agreement with prosecutors, who had charged him with capital murder. Prosecutors dropped charges of attempted capital murder and arson as part of the agreement.
Carroll County Circuit Judge Scott Jackson accepted Santiago’s plea and imposed the sentence recommended by prosecutors.
“I think it was a just result,” Carroll County Prosecuting Attorney Tony Rogers said after the hearing, which was held in the courtroom of the Carroll County Eastern District Courthouse in Berryville.
Santiago was escorted into the courtroom by Carroll County Sheriff’s Office personnel before the hearing and sat in the jury box. He later conferred with defense attorneys Robert “Beau” Allen and Patrick Benca and signed several documents.
After court was called to order, Jackson instructed Santiago to come down from the jury box and stand before him. Dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, Santiago was handcuffed and shackled at the waist and feet. He answered Jackson’s questions in a clear, loud voice. Jackson asked Santiago several questions regarding his understanding of the plea agreement. Santiago acknowledged that he understood the agreement, was satisfied with his legal counsel and wished to waive his right to a jury trial.
Asked how he wanted to plead to the reduced charge, Santiago responded: “I plead guilty, your honor.”
Santiago’s mother, seated on the front row, spoke with both prosecutors and defense attorneys before the hearing and cried quietly during the proceedings. She was consoled by two other women seated on each side of her.
Rogers said Santiago will be eligible to apply for parole after 25 years in prison. Had he pleaded guilt to capital murder, he would have had to serve 30 years before being eligible to apply for parole. Rogers said the odds are that Santiago will never be freed.
“Realistically, I do not think he will ever get out,” the prosecutor said.
Benca, a Little Rock attorney who joined Santiago’s defense team as co-counsel to Carroll County public defender Robert “Beau” Allen, referred questions to Allen. Allen left the courtroom without answering reporters’ questions and did not return a call for comment.
CCSO deputies responding to a call from the Santiago brothers’ father, Robert Keever, found Alex Santiago’s body inside the family’s rented mobile home at 92 Carroll County Road 219, in the Grandview area northwest of Berryville, on Jan. 17, 2017.
A probable cause affidavit written by CCSO investigator Lt. Jerry Reddick says Alex Santiago had “extensive trauma to his head and had a sword sticking out of his mid-section.”
A baseball bat found near the body was covered in blood, and a scabbard for the sword was found lying on the bed in the master bedroom where Joseph Santiago had been, the affidavit says.
The affidavit says deputies responding to the residence spoke with Keever in the front yard and he told them Alex Santiago was still in the back bedroom watching television. The affidavit says that during his initial call to the sheriff’s office, Keever indicated that Alex Santiago was autistic.
After speaking with Keever, Reddick’s affidavit says, deputies entered the residence, called Joseph Santiago out of the bedroom and took him into custody without incident. He was then transported to the sheriff’s office in Berryville, where the affidavit says he waived his Miranda rights and spoke with Reddick and investigator Mark Ashby.
In addition to admitting that he killed his brother, the affidavit says Santiago also admitted to setting a fire at the family’s previous residence, at the Osage Trailer Park on Carroll County Road 306, in April 2016. According to the affidavit, Santiago said he locked his brother in his room and then poured gasoline on the floor before setting the home on fire.
Keever’s name and the names of both sons were redacted from a copy of the affidavit provided by the sheriff’s office, but Keever and Alex Santiago were identified in an earlier news release from the CCSO and Joseph Santiago was openly identified in court shortly after his arrest.
Defense attorneys requested a mental evaluation in August 2017 and a state psychologist interviewed Santiago in February 2018. The psychologist reported that Santiago lacked a mental disease or defect, had the capacity to effectively assist his attorney in his own defense and had the capacity to understand the proceedings against him.
Alex Santiago was 21. Joseph Santiago was 17 at the time of the slaying and initially was held in a juvenile facility, but prosecutors said from the outset that he would be charged as an adult. He was transferred to the county jail in Berryville on his 18th birthday, approximately three weeks after the murder, and has been held there without bond since then. He was escorted out of the courtroom immediately after Monday’s hearing and will be held at the county jail until he is transferred to the state Department of Correction.