Jury deliberates in Illinois guards’ trial in fatal beating

Todd Sheffler and Alex Banta are charged with violating Larry Earvin’s civil rights after a brutal 2018 beating.

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Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys offered starkly different explanations Friday for the fatal beating of an Illinois prison inmate four years ago in closing arguments before a jury began deliberating in the trial of two former correctional officers.

Todd Sheffler, 53, of Mendon, and Alex Banta, 30, of Quincy, are charged with violating Larry Earvin’s civil rights in the brutal 2018 beating at Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mount Sterling. Earvin, 65, died five weeks later.

“They beat him up and then lied to cover it up,” assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller told the eight-man, four-woman jury in his closing argument. “This case is really that straightforward.”

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Defense attorneys, however, blamed other guards, including a third former correctional officer, former Sgt. Willie Hedden, who pleaded guilty last year to violating Earvin’s civil rights and testified for the government at the trial for Sheffler and Banta.

Sheffler and Banta are charged with depriving Earvin of his civil rights, conspiracy to deprive civil rights, tampering with a witness, destruction or falsification of records and intimidation or force against a witness. They face up to life in prison.

Hedden, 43, of Mount Sterling, testified during the four-week trial that he, Sheffler and Banta punched, kicked, stomped and jumped on Earvin in the vestibule of Western’s segregation unit, where there are no security cameras. The prison is 250 miles (402 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.

The jury met briefly Friday evening before adjourning for the weekend. Deliberations will continue on Monday.

The incident began when Earvin allegedly refused to return to his cell in the housing unit known as R-1. He was taken to the ground and handcuffed by guards who sent out an alert for assistance — a call that summoned dozens of officers including Banta and Hedden. Testimony indicated guards began kicking and punching Earvin in R-1.

Banta and Hedden were among officers who escorted Earvin to the segregation unit, with Sheffler joining along the way.

The government’s case rests largely on what assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass characterized as compelling, if circumstantial, evidence. The last security camera to record Earvin shows him bent over, but walking into segregation. Minutes later, photographs and testimony revealed that he had to be carried into a holding cell and that he was bleeding from a head wound, nearly unresponsive and vomiting, Bass said.

FILE – This undated file photo provided by the Illinois Department of Corrections shows Larry Earvin, a former inmate at Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mount Sterling, Ill. On Friday, April 22, 2022, federal prosecutors and defense attorneys battled over alternate stories about the fatal beating of Earvin, an Illinois prison inmate four years earlier, in closing arguments before a jury began deliberating in the civil rights trial of two former correctional officers. (Illinois Department of Corrections via AP, File)

Earvin died June 26 at a southern Illinois prison infirmary. His autopsy revealed he had 15 rib fractures; at least two dozen abrasions, hemorrhages and lacerations; a torn aorta; and abdominal injuries so severe a portion of his bowel was surgically removed. 

Medical professionals testified that such injuries typically are seen in high-speed car crashes or falls from great heights.

However, defense attorneys argued that testimony also showed that such injuries could be cumulative — starting small when Earvin was roughed up in R-1 and growing worse as he was forcibly moved to segregation.

Sheffler attorney Sara Vig pointed to security footage and testimony about what happened inside R-1.

“They (the government) have got a great case in R-1, they haven’t proved anything in segregation,” Vig said. “The only thing they can say about segregation is might have, could have been, maybe — and that’s not beyond a reasonable doubt. You can’t guess a man into prison.”

Vig and Banta attorney Stanley Wasser said as many as six witnesses who testified for the government — including Hedden and others who recounted a severe beating in the segregation unit vestibule — admitted lying to the Illinois State Police, FBI or both before changing their stories at the trial. 

Wasser asked repeatedly why those witnesses, some of whom acknowledged punching or kicking Earvin, were not on trial. 

But Bass asked the jury what motive any of the witnesses had to admit under oath that they had lied, risking their jobs and more. He said Hedden explained that he was hoping for a lighter sentence through cooperation, and he wouldn’t get leniency from U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough if she found him untruthful.

“You have two stories here,” Bass said. “It’s up to you to determine which is common sense and which is utter nonsense. Hold Alex Banta and Todd Sheffler accountable for what they did to this man, how they assaulted him, the bodily harm, causing his death.”

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