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By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — Ezra J. McCandless, who was convicted by a jury last October of the first degree intentional homicide of Alexander Woodworth in the Town of Spring Brook in March of 2018, has been sentenced to life in prison.
McCandless appeared in Dunn County Circuit Court February 7 with her attorneys Aaron Nelson and D. Vishny for a sentencing hearing before Judge James Peterson.
In addition to life in prison, Judge Peterson set McCandless’s eligibility for petitioning the court for extended supervision after she has served 50 years.
Conviction of first degree intentional homicide in Wisconsin requires a mandatory life sentence.
McCandless, who was 20 years old at the time, stabbed the 24-year-old Woodworth 16 times.
Woodworth’s body was discovered in McCandless’s car in the Town of Spring Brook, south of Elk Mound, on Friday, March 23, 2018.
During the three-week trial last fall, McCandless’s attorneys argued that McCandless had stabbed Woodworth in self defense.
McCandless and Woodworth had dated, although McCandless had broken off the relationship approximately one month before his death and had told Woodworth she never wanted to see him again. There was no indication Woodworth had attempted to contact McCandless after that, but on March 22, 2018, McCandless went to Woodworth’s apartment in Eau Claire to return several items and to talk about their relationship.
She had been living with her stepfather in Stanley.
The prosecution — Dunn County District Attorney Andrea Nodolf and state Assistant Attorney General Richard Dufour — said McCandless had lured Woodworth to his death in the farm field that was out of sight of the road.
Woodworth was a philosophy student at UW-Eau Claire and had been planning to apply for graduate school.
During the sentencing hearing, victim impact statements, which were either made by Woodworth’s family members themselves or read by Nodolf, stated that Woodworth’s family grieved for the loss of the young man himself and were also grieving for “what he might have become.”
One family member said the family had not experienced a single joyful family get-together in the nearly two years since Alex’s death.
One statement Nodolf read said more than 300 people attended a memorial service for Woodworth, and the family had received more than 500 cards.
A letter in one of the cards, from someone the family does not know, said their son was alive because of Alexander Woodworth. The young man had been suicidal, had talked to Alex, and Alex had made sure the young man had found the resources the young man needed to help him, the letter said.
McCandless’s family members also made statements to the court.
McCandless’s mother, who was 14 years old when McCandless was born, described growing up under abusive conditions herself and also talked about some of the turbulence of McCandless’s childhood.
During the trial, McCandless was described as being “gender fluid” and that she sometimes identifies as male and sometimes identifies as female.
At the sentencing hearing, McCandless’s family members said she was kind and caring and that she had an affinity for animals.
McCandless’s mother asked the court to consider eligibility for extended supervision after 20 years so they could have some hope of having McCandless back with their family again.
No death penalty
Wisconsin is not a death penalty state, and Wisconsin also does not offer parole, Judge Peterson said.
Instead of parole, prison inmates can petition for extended supervision. The petition would have to be filed in Branch I of Dunn County Circuit Court, and the burden would be on the defendant to show that she is not a danger to society, he said.
McCandless was convicted after a jury trial of first-degree intentional homicide, which is “the most serious crime we have in this state,” Judge Peterson said.
Sentencing, he said, required consideration of the seriousness of the offense, the character of the person being sentenced and protection of the public.
“It doesn’t get any more serious,” Judge Peterson said.
Alexander Woodworth died as the result of a brutal homicide — “no question about it,” Judge Peterson said, adding it was “a
terrible, terrible crime” and that the victim endured an unknown amount of pain and suffering.
No one knows if Woodworth was dead when McCandless left the scene or whether he was still alive, he said.
The jury’s verdict, however, is that they did not believe the attack on Woodworth was in self-defense, Judge Peterson said.
There is no doubt in the court’s mind that McCandless intended to kill Woodworth, and the murder was not in self defense, he said.
At that point in time, McCandless was not the person her family knows and loves, Judge Peterson said.
McCandless also was not truthful with investigators, the judge said.
“We will never know for sure what really happened,” he said.
McCandless was in “a very dark place,” and she made poor choices in her relationships, Judge Peterson said, adding he fully acknowledges brain science and that at 20 years old, McCandless’s pre-frontal cortex was not fully mature.
McCandless had turmoil in her relationships and turmoil in her sexual identity. At one point she wrote in her journal, “I feel like my mind is on fire,” Judge Peterson said.
Ten days before the homicide, McCandless told Jason Mengle, with whom she also had a relationship, that she wanted to confront Alex, to tell him to stay out of her life and that she regretted meeting him. McCandless said she might “punch Alex in the face,” if “he gives me a look.” She was feeling anger and pent-up rage, and based on the facts, the jury found she had intent to kill Alex, the judge said.
McCandless “boiled over” at some point, and the homicide was not in self defense, Judge Peterson said.
Protecting the public
Regarding protection of the public, the best predictor of future behavior is what has happened in the past, Judge Peterson said.
The public expects to be protected, and the judge said he did not know when McCandless would no longer be a danger to the public, whether that would be in 20 years or 30 years or 40 years.
The pre-sentence investigation (PSI) recommends life in prison with eligibility for extended supervision in 50 years, he said.
The district attorney is asking for life in prison with no opportunity for extended supervision, and the defense is asking for life in prison with the earliest possibility for extended supervision, Judge Peterson said.
McCandless has no past record and there is no evidence of prior violent behavior, but what the court saw was there was no evidence of remorse or genuine contrition, he said.
The court allowed evidence some people viewed as an assassination of Alexander Woodworth’s character, but the testimony was rejected by the jury, and there was no evidence Alex did anything wrong, Judge Peterson said.
Alex was described as kind, gentle, witty and compassionate, and his death is a great loss for his family, his friends and for the community, he said.
“Nobody wins in this case,” Judge Peterson said.
Eligibility for extended supervision in 20 years would not serve the community. One of Alex’s uncles asked for 60 years, one year for every day the family had to wait for Alex’s body before they could lay him to rest, he said.
Nelson, McCandless’s attorney, had argued Woodworth’s body be held as evidence should the defense want to request an independent autopsy, and it was about four months all together before Woodworth’s body was released to his family.
After Judge Peterson sentenced McCandless to life in prison with eligibility to petition for extended supervision after serving 50 years, he explained that the timeframe of 50 years spares Alex’s parents of seeing the day when McCandless petitions for release and spares them any additional court proceedings to hear her ask for extended supervision.
Judge Peterson granted McCandless 683 days of credit for time already served.
Vishny, McCandless’s attorney, said she had 692 days of credit and that McCandless was not out of custody from the time she had been taken to the hospital on March 22, 2018, after she went to a farmhouse in the Town of Spring Brook.
Judge Peterson said McCandless was not taken into custody for Alex’s death until March 27.
Bail was set at $250,000 cash for McCandless on March 29, 2018.
When McCandless petitions for extended supervision, she must demonstrate she is not a danger to the public, and the court can, at that time, set another date for eligibility for extended supervision, the judge said.
Judge Peterson also ordered McCandless to pay $268 in court costs, a $250 DNA surcharge, and restitution of $6,944 to cover the cost of funeral expenses, lost work time and travel expenses, with restitution to be deducted from McCandless’s prison wages.
Alexander Woodworth’s parents should not have to pay for Alex’s funeral, the judge said.
In addition, Judge Peterson set the condition that McCandless is to have no contact with Alex’s family, unless members of his family are initiating the contact should they wish to pursue restorative justice.