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AKRON -- For the third time, former Northfield resident Willard Stephen McCarley has been sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years in the 1992 murder of Twinsburg Township resident Charlene Puffenbarger.
Summit County Court of Common Pleas Judge Joy Malek Oldfield sentenced the 54-year-old McCarley April 13. A Summit County jury found McCarley guilty April 12 of aggravated murder, a special felony, in the murder of the 26-year-old Puffenbarger.
"After the agony of losing a loved one in such a brutal manner, and suffering through 25 years and three trials, Charlene's family can now know that justice has been served," said Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh. "Three juries have now found McCarley guilty of aggravated murder. We will never stop fighting for Charlene or her family. McCarley has earned every day of his life sentence for this murder."
McCarley's attorneys John Greven and Scott Rilley did not return a call seeking comment by press time April 17.
Prosecutors say McCarley beat, strangled, and suffocated Puffenbarger Jan. 20, 1992, in her Ray Court apartment. Puffenbarger had two toddler sons at the time of her murder, one of whom testified at two of the three trials. Both boys were in the apartment at the time of the murder.
The most recent verdict and sentencing marked the conclusion of the third jury trial for McCarley on charges that he killed Puffenbarger. In both previous trials (2005 and 2007), Summit County jurors found McCarley guilty of aggravated murder. However, those verdicts were overturned upon appeal and McCarley was granted new trials.
McCarley was arrested in March 2004, 12 years after the murder, after the Summit County Sheriff's Office discovered new DNA evidence -- skin cells that matched McCarley on a leather belt used to strangle Puffenbarger.
He has been in Grafton Correctional Institution since his initial 2005 conviction in Summit County Court of Common Pleas, three trials ago.
A 2014 decision by the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati sent the case back down to lower courts for a third trial.
The U.S. appellate court's decision was based on a violation of McCarley's Sixth Amendment right to confront a witness, according to the 2014 ruling.
Summit County prosecutors alleged over two trials in February 2005 and January 2007 that McCarley committed the murder to avoid paying child support to Puffenbarger for a son they had together.
However, three Sixth Circuit judges found that much of the state's case in the second, January 2007 trial was based on hearsay testimony from a child psychologist, who testified about statements made to her by Puffenbarger's son, then 3, who prosecutors say witnessed the murder.
Since McCarley's defense team never had an opportunity to depose or cross examine Puffenbarger's son, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that this violated McCarley's right to confront witnesses against him.
McCarley was sentenced to life in prison by Summit County Common Pleas Court by Judge Marvin Shapiro following his initial, 2005 aggravated murder conviction.
But the Ninth District Court of Appeals granted McCarley a second trial in 2006, overturning the February 2005 verdict and life sentence because of a comment that Shapiro made to a witness during the first trial, which the Ninth District ruled prejudiced the witness.
Editor's Note: News Leader Editor Eric Marotta contributed to this report.