Jury selection begins today for two Western Illinois Correctional Center guards charged in the 2018 death of an inmate.
Muddy River News reports that procedures for jury selection for the trial of Alex Banta of Quincy and Todd Sheffler of Mendon were heard yesterday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Eric I. Long. The two correctional officers’ trial was originally supposed to begin last summer, but has been continued multiple times due to Covid-19.
The original indictment against Sheffler, Banta, and Willie Hedden was filed in December 2019 accusing the 3 guards had conspired and agreed on May 17, 2018, to forcibly remove 65 year old inmate Larry Earvin from his housing unit to a segregation unit. The three men then are alleged to have assaulted Earvin in a blind spot from the prison’s camera system without legal justification while he was handcuffed and restrained.
The assault left Earvin with 15 broken ribs, a punctured colon and two dozen or more abrasions, hemorrhages and lacerations. Earvin, who was serving a six-year sentence for robbery in Cook County and was scheduled to be paroled in September 2018 later died at Centralia Correctional Facility as a result of his injuries on June 26, 2018. An autopsy would later reveal Earvin’s death was due to blunt force trauma.
WBEZ in Chicago later reported that a nurse at the prison in Mt. Sterling reported the incident 5 days later to another staff member and said that she was aware that the blind spot in the prison had been used for multiple beatings. She went on to tell the co-workers that another guard, Blake Haubrich of Quincy allegedly threatened her to keep quiet about the blind spot. Haurbich has not been criminally charged but is named in the Earvin family’s civil suit over the case.
The December 2019 indictment of the three guards went on to say that Sheffler, Hedden and Banta knowingly filed false incident reports, falsely describing the escort of Earvin to the segregation housing unit and failing to disclose any assault of Earvin. The three men also knowingly misled agents from the Illinois State Police about knowledge of an assault of Ervin.
The 43 year old Hedden of Mt. Sterling pleaded guilty in March 2021 to two counts of civil rights violations and one count of providing misleading information in the subsequent investigation. During his plea hearing, Hedden agreed to provide cooperation and is currently listed as one of the federal government’s 74 potential witnesses that may be called to testify in what may be a 3-week trial against Sheffler and Banta. Hedden’s sentencing is scheduled for July.
According to the Associated Press, Hedden, Banta, Haubrich, and Correctional Lieutenant Benjamin Burnett, of Winchester were all initially placed on administrative leave with pay. State records indicate Burnett and Haubrich, who make $95,616 a year, are active on the Corrections payroll. Both are listed as potential witnesses.
During opening arguments yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass described the beating for the court. Defense attorneys for Sheffler and Banta argued during opening statements that their clients weren’t where others claim they were at the time of the beating and that the testimony of dozens of witnesses will prove “illusory, contradictory and ambiguous.”
All three guards face up to life imprisonment and several thousands of dollars in fines.