MURPHYSBORO — The state prosecutors who sought to convict Gaege Bethune in the 2014 death of Southern Illinois University student Pravin Varughese have dismissed the charges against him.
But Bethune’s name is not completely cleared.
Unlike an acquittal, which often prevents a defendant from facing the same charges multiple times, thanks to the constitutional protection known as double jeopardy, Wednesday’s ruling of “nolle prosequi” allows prosecutors to refile charges in the future.
Dave Neal, a special prosecutor assigned to the case by the Illinois Office of the State’s Attorney Appellate Prosecutor, assured that the saga is not over.
“This is a long and detailed process and we believe at the end of it all, justice will be served,” Neal said.
The reason for dropping the current case, Neal said, was not insufficient evidence, but rather to address problems with the indictment that laid out his office’s charges against Bethune.
That indictment was ruled to contain wording that could have confused a jury by judge Mark Clarke in September 2018. As a result, Clarke vacated the guilty verdict against Bethune, returned by a jury last year, and ordered a new trial.
Now, Neal and fellow prosecutors have canceled the indictment as it was written. In order to bring new charges against Bethune, prosecutors would need to convince a grand jury or a judge to indict Bethune again.
“What happened today was the next step in moving forward,” Neal said. He could not say when, or if his office would press new charges, but if they do, he assured they would again seek a felony murder conviction in relation to the night of Varughese’s death.
Varughese was found dead in the woods on the east side of Carbondale near Illinois 13 on Feb. 13, 2014.
His cause of death was reported as environmental hypothermia, but the prosecution argued Bethune was responsible for Varughese's death after Varughese ran into the woods on a cold February night following a physical altercation between the two.
In comments after Wednesday’s hearing, Bethune’s defense characterized Varughese’s death as a tragic accident, and expressed hope that Wednesday might mark the end of a terrible ordeal.
That will depend on state prosecutors, and the strength of their evidence.
Any future proceedings would also be heard by a new judge, as Judge Clarke retired just a few months after he overturned Bethune’s conviction.
Today, Bethune is a free man. He walked out of the courtroom Wednesday surrounded by family and supporters. His lawyers received 90 percent of his $100,000 bond payment, court documents indicate.
Bethune's defense could not be reached directly for comment Wednesday afternoon.