FULL TEXT: Linda Lou Charbonneau will die by injection for orchestrating the "egregious, cold-blooded, horrible" killings of her husband and former husband in 2001, Sussex County Superior Court Judge Richard F. Stokes ruled Friday. Charbonneau, 56, showed no reaction to the death sentence, even as Stokes described in some detail the manner in which she would be put to death. She is the only woman facing execution in Delaware and would be the first the state has put to death since 1935.
Stokes set no date for execution. Under Delaware law, the state Supreme Court automatically reviews all death penalty cases. Charbonneau's lawyer, Thomas Pedersen, said she will appeal her conviction.
Charbonneau was convicted April 23 of masterminding the deaths of her former husband, John Charbonneau, 62, in September 2001, and her husband, William Sproates III, 45, the following month. An autopsy found dirt in Sproates' lungs, indicating he was still breathing when he was buried.
After hearing Charbonneau plead for her life, the jury voted 10-2 to recommend death in the John Charbonneau killing and 9-3 in the Sproates case. Under state law, Stokes had final say in sentencing, but had to give great weight to the jury's recommendation.
"The family is happy that she is being sentenced to death," said Richard Charbonneau, John Charbonneau's brother. "But there won't be closure for the family until the day of her execution. She put our family through so much in the last four years."
Deputy Attorney General James Adkins said he was pleased with the sentence. "It doesn't bring them back," he said. "But it's the best justice we can get." Adkins had argued that Charbonneau plotted the murder of John Charbonneau out of greed, and planned the killing of Sproates after he started asking too many questions about John Charbonneau's disappearance. Sproates was John Charbonneau's nephew. Adkins said Charbonneau enlisted the help of her daughter, Mellisa Rucinski, and Rucinski's husband, Willie Brown, to carry out the murders.
Speaking to a crowded, near-capacity courtroom, Stokes said Linda Charbonneau "engineered these killings" and rejected an argument that she should be treated the same as her two co-defendants, neither of whom faces the death penalty. Stokes is scheduled to sentence Rucinski on Friday to as long as 25 years in prison for her role in the murders. She pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree murder and one count of conspiracy in John Charbonneau's death. Brown is expected to be sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, without possibility of probation or parole, for carrying out the murders of Sproates and John Charbonneau. Brown pleaded guilty to two charges of first-degree murder.
"They were her agents," Stokes said. "She has more, not less, responsibility for their murders."
Stokes reviewed the case for almost an hour Friday, outlining the details of the crimes, the findings of the jury and, finally, his recommendation for two death penalties. The judge looked directly at Charbonneau as he pronounced his sentence, which also included 10 years in prison for two conspiracy charges and 20 years for possessing a deadly weapon during a felony.
Pedersen said Charbonneau was not surprised by the sentence. Dressed in a white prison top and trousers and shackled at the ankles, Charbonneau stood quietly as she listened to Stokes. Pedersen stood to her right and co-counsel Craig Karsnitz to her left. She wiped away tears with a tissue when Stokes mentioned her grandchildren and her mother.
The only sounds in the courtroom after the sentence was announced were quiet murmurs from John Charbonneau's sister, Jerry Ann Heath. Heath was among the first to suspect that something had happened to her brother in late September 2001.
In a summary, Stokes painted a picture of a callous woman who recruited Brown to do her killing. Stokes described the on-again, off-again relationship between Linda and John Charbonneau as "dysfunctional" and said she physically and mentally abused him.
Linda Charbonneau took advantage of his violent temper and dislike of John Charbonneau. She then led John Charbonneau to his death by telling him someone was breaking into their home in Bridgeville.
Brown "viciously struck him in the face," Stokes said. John Charbonneau "cried out to Linda Charbonneau not to let this happen," but she did nothing, Stokes said.
Brown loaded John Charbonneau into Linda Charbonneau's van and, with Rucinski at the wheel, took him to a prepared shallow grave near Angola, where he beat him to death. The three defendants cleaned out John Charbonneau's home, and Linda Charbonneau made plans to move in with her husband, Sproates, at his home in Magnolia.
But when Sproates discovered a blood-spattered box, he started asking Charbonneau questions and also mentioned his suspicions to a Delaware State Police trooper. "She told Brown and Rucinski that something had to be done about Sproates," Stokes said. "Her words became his death warrant." Stokes described the beating death of Sproates as "a horrific encounter" in which Charbonneau lured Sproates into his home as Brown waited inside.
"Brown is the one who killed them," Stokes said. "But she was the dominant force behind these crimes."
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, women account for less than 2 percent of the national death row population. Ten women have been executed in the United States since 1976 - the last in October 2002 in Florida.
Delaware has executed three women in its history. There now are 15 men in Delaware prisons who have been sentenced to death. Two other men await sentencing after jury recommendations for the death penalty. The last death penalty recommendation in Sussex County came in March 1986 when a jury unanimously called for Kenneth W. DeShields to be sentenced to death. He was executed in 1993.
[Molly Murray, “Charbonneau sentenced to death; She masterminded 'cold-blooded, horrible' killings of husbands, judge says,” Sussex Bureau reporter, June 5, 2004]
Linda Lou Charbonneau
Feb. 9, 1948 – Linda Lou born.
Sep. 23, 2001 – John Charbonneau (62), former husband, near Millsboro (Sussex County)
Oct. 17, 2001 – William Sproates III, (45), husband, nephew of John Charbonneau, Magnolia.
Nov. 30, 2001 – body found. Linda Lou Charbonneau arrested.
Jul. 7, 2002 – Willie Brown (LLC’s s-in-l) leads police to body of John Charbonneau.
Apr. 23, 2004 – Linda Lou Charbonneau convicted.
Jun. 4, 2004 – LLC (56) receives 2 death sentences, Sussex County, Delaware.
2006 – appeals court overturned Linda's conviction. They did so on the basis that the prosecution had not called Willie Brown and he had not been compelled to testify for the defense.
Mar. 5, 2007 – Linda Lou Charbonneau, whose initial conviction and death sentence had been thrown out by the state Supreme Court, pleaded guilty Monday [Mar. 5] in the death of ex-husband John Charbonneau. The plea deal came during her second trial after a key prosecution witness -- Charbonneau's daughter -- refused to testify. Charbonneau, 59, could receive up to 20 years in prison at sentencing in May. As part of the deal, the charges involving the death of her husband, William Sproates III, were dropped. [“Woman admits guilt in ex-husband's death,” Boston.com, Mar. 6, 2007]
Jun. 2016 – Mellisa Rucinski involved in the killings of two men in 2001is seeking commutation of her 25-year prison sentence. She pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the death of John Charbonneau, and to conspiracy in the death of William Sproates III. In exchange for her plea, she agreed to testify against her mother and alleged mastermind of the killings, Linda Lou Charbonneau.
For links to other cases of woman who murdered 2 or more husbands (or paramours), see Black Widow Serial Killers.