Joseph James

Joseph James

OMAHA, Neb. — A man who pleaded guilty to the 2018 murder of a Yankton woman has been sentenced to life in prison.

In a hearing in Omaha that lasted 25 minutes Wednesday morning, Nebraska, defendant Joseph James received a life sentence for the murder of, Phyllis Hunhoff.

“Your conduct has taken a life and altered the lives of others,” Judge Brian Buescher told James before imposing a life sentence. “I hope you remember the pain you caused for everyday of your sentence which will be for the rest of your life.”

Buescher adopted the presentence investigation report and accepted the prosecution’s proposed plea agreement in which James agreed to plead guilty to Count I of the Second Superseding Indictment: Murder in Indian Country.

According to court documents, Count I reads: “On or about the 5th day of November, 2018, in the District of Nebraska, on the Santee Sioux Indian Reservation, the defendant, Joseph Lloyd James, an Indian male, willfully, deliberately, maliciously, and with premeditation and malice aforethought, did unlawfully kill P.H.”

Phyllis Hunhoff was abducted Nov. 4, 2018, while in transit between mother’s home in Utica and Yankton. Her body was found on the Santee Sioux Indian Reservation days later. There was evidence of foul play and arson to conceal the crime.

James was indicted for arson in connection with the murder later that month.

In February 2019, James was indicted and charged with murder, felony murder, kidnapping resulting in death and carjacking resulting in death. He pleaded not guilty at that time, but changed his plea to guilty in February in conjunction with a plea deal.

In exchange for a guilty plea to the murder charge, prosecutors Wednesday moved to drop the balance of the charges against James and did not pursue the death penalty. Buescher approved the motion and sentenced James to life in prison and to pay special assessment fee of $100.

"This was a brutal, horrific, and senseless murder and we hope that today’s life sentence brings some small comfort for the family," U.S. Attorney Joe Kelly said.

According to documents filed with the court, the prisoner has been remanded to the custody of the U.S. Marshal pending transfer to the Bureau of Prisons for a term of Life. If paroled, his supervised release would last for a term of five years. Court documents do not specify whether James may become eligible for parole in the future.

Last year, Ramon Simpson, also of Norfolk, Nebraska, was added to the indictment against James. He is charged with kidnapping resulting in death and conspiracy to commit kidnapping in the Hunhoff murder.

Simpson is also charged with taking James’ cell phone just prior to the murder and modifying the data in conjunction with the crime.

Last week, Simpson moved to file a motion under seal, due to its confidential nature.

In February Simpson made a motion to suppress any statement made to investigators on or about Nov. 8, 2018 and Nov. 21, 2018, claiming that his Miranda rights were violated.

At this time, there is no indication that prosecutors are offering a plea deal as the case continues to make its way to trial.

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