MT. STERLING – David Kerstein thought there must be a mistake. The prison warden told him that if he wanted to meet with prisoner Roger Latimer he had to be at Western Illinois Correctional Center by 7 a.m. He had driven five hours from a Chicago suburb. Now staff were telling him there was no record of a scheduled legal visit. Kerstein was furious. He argued with staff and, according to Kerstein, it took four hours until they agreed, with one condition: A guard would be watching the whole time.
Latimer was a prospective client who’d been convicted for possesing child pornography. Kerstein didn’t like the idea of a guard observing a legal visit. But, he’d driven through the night — he didn’t want to leave empty handed. So he agreed.
Immediately Kerstein could tell that may have been a bad idea. Latimer has autism. He was loud, seemingly unaware that he should keep his voice down if he didn’t want the guard to hear. And he seemed to have no filter. He kept telling Kerstein that guards there had severely beaten him. He said guards dragged him down the sidewalk between buildings and made him walk so fast he kept falling.
There’s a spot in the prison without security cameras, Latimer told him. A blind spot. And that’s where Latimer said they assaulted him.
Video has become the main way victims of law enforcement brutality prove their case, and it’s rare that an incident involving law enforcement gets attention without a recording. Prisons are covered with cameras.
But those cameras are controlled by prison staff — they decide where cameras are located and if footage is publicly shared. WBEZ fought for nearly two years to get videos from the day Larry Earvin was allegedly beaten to see how he ended up in the hospital with such serious injuries. By October 2020, WBEZ obtained the footage.
The first video covers the initial conflict between Earvin and guards as he’s removed from the prison tier where he was housed. Most of the confrontation occurs under a walkway that connects the two sides of the prison wing on the second floor. Because Earvin and the guards are standing under that bridge, you see only their feet and legs for several minutes. Staff reports say at some point Earvin bit a guard, but that can’t be seen because of the angle of the camera. Guards rush onto the wing, and a dozen of them surround Earvin as they walk him out.
Another security camera picks up on the sidewalk outside the housing unit. Earvin looks like he is having trouble walking. His arms are cuffed behind his back and guards are pulling them up, causing Earvin to lean forward. His pants sag and eventually fall to his ankles. A guard steps on them, so they come off, and then the guard throws the pants into the grass.
Another camera picks up, just outside the segregation building. It shows Earvin, still handcuffed with a guard on each side, walking into the doors of the segregation building — toward the blind spot Latimer talked about. There is no video of what happened there.
Earvin died June 26, 2018, from blunt trauma to the chest and abdomen, just a few months before he was scheduled to be released. “I was told that … he was beaten severely. And they sent pictures of him laying in the hospital bed, his feet chained to the bed … and he did not survive from that point,” Willie said. “He was my brother and didn’t deserve that treatment. None of us do.”
Federal authorities launched an investigation into the death, and, in December 2019, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Central District of Illinois charged three guards for beating Earvin. According to the indictment, Todd Sheffler of Mendon, Willie Hedden of Mt. Sterling and Alex Banta of Quincy assaulted Earvin “without legal justification while he was restrained and handcuffed behind his back and while he posed no physical threat to the defendants or other correctional officers.”
The federal indictment also alleges that the guards falsified reports about the incident and misled state police when they denied they had any knowledge of the assault. One of the guards, Hedden, has pleaded guilty. Sheffler and Banta are scheduled to go to trial later this month. Lawyers for the three guards did not answer requests for comment or declined to talk.
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