Former University of Idaho graduate student Wenkai Li has pleaded guilty to counts of first- and second-degree murder for the Memorial Day stabbing deaths of two fellow Chinese students in Moscow.
“I admit I killed these two people,” Li tearfully told 2nd District Judge John Bengtson on Wednesday. “I just feel sorry I hurt so many people.”
The admission came after days of plea negotiations between prosecution and defense attorneys, who spent Monday and Tuesday selecting a jury for Li’s trial on two counts of first-degree murder.
Li, 25, was accused of stabbing University of Idaho doctoral student Ning Li 28 times and his wife, Xia Ge, 10 times.
Their bodies were found June 4 inside sleeping bags discarded along a Wyoming road. Authorities arrested Wenkai Li the next day in Laramie, Wyo.
Latah County Deputy Prosecutor Robin Eckmann said Li confessed to authorities in Wyoming, and there also was evidence that he had purchased items including a knife believed to be the murder weapon and the sleeping bags in which the bodies were wrapped.
The motive for the killings remains unclear, but Li said Wednesday that he wants to tell his version of the story. Bengtson assured him he would get the opportunity during a scheduled Jan. 24 sentencing hearing.
In exchange for a chance to avoid the death penalty, Li agreed to plead guilty to first-degree murder in Ge’s death and second-degree murder in Ning Li’s death.
Bengtson still will have the option of the death penalty if he believes it is warranted after Prosecutor Bill Thompson lists aggravating factors in the murders and after the victims’ family members “explain to the judge how these murders have affected them,” said Thompson.
Meanwhile, taxpayers are saving at least $50,000 and a lengthy trial while ensuring practically the same sentence Li would have received if he had been found guilty by a jury, Thompson said.
Li has agreed to life sentences on each charge and will serve a minimum of 10 years in prison for first-degree murder. It is up to Bengtson to determine how much more time Li must serve before being eligible for parole and if the sentences will be consecutive or concurrent.
Latah County Public Defender Michael Henegen had advised Li against any deal involving a first-degree murder charge. But Henegen said the agreement reached Wednesday is in Li’s best interest.
“My attorney did persuade me, and I understand all the evidence against me,” Wenkai Li told the judge. “I think the state has enough evidence against me.”
The agreement makes it possible for Li to withdraw his guilty pleas and go to trial if Bengtson decides the death penalty must remain an option. The judge ordered a presentence investigation and mental evaluation.
“Mr. Li, at this time, I really don’t know what punishment or penalty I would impose,” Bengtson said.
Members of the victims’ families have called for the death penalty and reportedly have petitions with the signatures of 15,000 Chinese nationals calling for Li’s execution.
, DataTimes MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.