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Steven Crittenden sentenced to 63 years to life for 1987 murder of Chico doctor, wife

A long-running Chico double murder case that landed Steven Crittenden on death row for the murders of Katherine and William Chiapella came to a conclusion Friday.

Posted: Apr 16, 2021 10:34 AM
Updated: Apr 16, 2021 5:58 PM

CHICO, Calif. – A long-running Chico double murder case that landed a man on death row until his conviction was overturned in 2015 has come to a conclusion.

Steven Crittenden, 53, pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of first-degree murder, and one count of first-degree robbery in connection with the murders of William and Katherine Chiapella during a burglary at their home on Jan. 13, 1987.

Crittenden was sentenced in Placer County Superior Court in Roseville to 63 years to life in prison. Surviving members of the Chiapella family are now giving victim impact statements in court.

The murders of Katherine and William, a well-known Chico obstetrician, riveted the community, as the murders were especially brutal and savage, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said. Additionally, messages were written on mirrors in the home stating, “Just the Beginning.”

RELATED: 30-year-old double murder case in Chico back in headlines

On Jan. 21, 1987, Crittenden, who was a 19-year-old student at California State University, Chico, was arrested for the crimes. His trial was later moved to Placer County on a change of venue motion due to overwhelming publicity surrounding the case and the sympathy and admiration of the doctor and his wife, Ramsey said.

While awaiting trial in the Butte County Jail, Crittenden escaped and kidnapped a resident of a nearby neighborhood to drive him to Sacramento where he was recaptured, Ramsey said.

In 1989, a Placer County jury found Crittenden guilty of the murders of the Chiapellas, despite his claim of innocence. He was also convicted of additional charges of robbery, the use of knives in the killings, escape and kidnapping.

Ramsey said the same jury found various "special circumstances" of multiple homicide, murder during a robbery and torture to be true, and returned a death penalty sentence.

Crittenden's conviction was later overturned in 2013 by a federal judge on a claim that a potential black juror was illegally excused. The same claim and appeal was previously rejected by the California Supreme Court in December 1994.

Prosecutors then appealed the overturned conviction to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who upheld the decision to overturn the verdict in a split decision of 2-1 in 2015. Preparations were then made to retry Crittenden by the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.

RELATED: Retrial against Steven Crittenden for Chiapella murders may end up in Placer Co. after all

During the preparation to retry Crittenden and reinstate his death sentence, Gov. Gavin Newsom put a hold on all executions at San Quentin State Prison, where Crittenden remained pending retrial.

Crittenden’s defense team and Butte County District Attorney, Mike Ramsey, began negotiations, which resulted in a plea deal that would spare Crittenden a potential death sentence but require him to plead guilty to all the counts of which the earlier Placer County jury had convicted him.

In addition, it was agreed that Crittenden would write a full confession in the form of a letter to the Chiapella family, which could be used should he ever attempt to deny his responsibility for his crimes, Ramsey said. Crittenden agreed to a non-appealable sentence of 63 years to life in prison. He also agreed to waive all credit for the time he served in custody up to 2015. Under current California law, Crittenden would not have a chance at a parole hearing until 2035.

This is a developing story. Action News Now will keep you updated with new information on-air and online.

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