Case against two prison guards from Western Illinois Correctional Center now in jury’s hands

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Guards at the Western Illinois Correctional Center escort Larry Earvin into a segregation unit on May 17, 2018. There is no video of what happened there. However, testimony in the trial of Todd Sheffler and Alex Banta described Earvin suffering a broken rib, a collapsed lung, a severe head injury and a “fist-sized” hole in his abdomen that interrupted blood flow to his colon and resulted in surgery to remove a portion of his bowel. | Illinois Department of Corrections surveillance video

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller said the case against two prison guards at the Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mount Sterling comes down to two facts.

“They beat him up,” he said during closing arguments Friday afternoon in the U.S. District Courthouse in the Paul Findley Federal Building. “Then they lied to cover it up.”

Attorneys for both sides presented closing arguments in the federal trial for Todd Sheffler, 53, of Mendon and Alex Banta, 30, of Quincy. U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough gave the case to the jury of nine men and three women at 4:23 p.m.

The jurors went home around 6 p.m. Friday. They will return at 9 a.m. Monday.

The trial began March 28. Sheffler and Banta each face charges of depriving Larry 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.

Sheffler, Banta and Willie Hedden, another prison guard, allegedly brutalized Earvin, a 65-year-old handcuffed inmate in the Mount Sterling facility, on May 17, 2018, then later allegedly attempted a coverup. Earvin died on June 26. 

Hedden, who is from Mount Sterling, also was named in a December 2019 grand jury indictment. He pleaded guilty in March 2021 and was a government witness in this case.

Defense attorney called WICC ‘a rotting orchard’

Sara Vig, Sheffler’s attorney, began her closing argument with the message, “TODD SHEFFLER IS NOT GUILTY,” in white letters with a black background on a screen in the courtroom. Vig called the Western Illinois Correctional Center a “rotting orchard.”

She said investigators in the case were “looking for a few bad apples.” She called her client “a scapegoat for the Illinois State Police.”

Stanley Wasser, Banta’s attorney, described the prosecution’s case as “trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”

He cautioned the jury to believe the testimony of other WICC guards, calling Hedden a “serial liar.” He said testimony given by Brett Hendricks and Blake Haubrich “has to give you great pause.”

Banta was not in the courtroom Tuesday but attended Friday. He wore a patterned shirt. With his back turned to the jury, he sat about 6 feet from the lectern where the attorneys gave closing arguments. He typically faced straight ahead and did not look at the attorneys or the jurors. His mother and his sister were in attendance.

Sheffler wore a blue suit, and he has grown a white beard since his time at the prison. He sat with his attorneys about 10 feet away from Banta and his attorneys. His parents, his wife and his brother were in attendance.

Prosecuting attorney described events of May 17, 2018

Miller was the first to make a closing argument. He gave his version of the events of May 17, 2018.

He said Earvin was not allowed to go into the yard at the WICC that afternoon. At 1:18 p.m., corrections officer Brandon Syrcle told Earvin he needed to go back to his cell and lock up, but Earvin refused. Syrcle then reached out to Lt. Ben Burnett, who came to D wing where Earvin was located.

Burnett attempted to handcuff Earvin from behind but failed, so he used pepper spray to subdue him and made a Code 1 (staff in distress) call. Twenty-eight officers responded. Burnett then took Earvin to the ground to handcuff him behind his back and take him to segregation.

Haubrich, a lieutenant, and Burnett helped Earvin stand. Then, with Hedden assisting on the left and Banta on the right, Earvin was moved from the D wing to the segregation foyer — a distance of about 100 yards. Miller said the guards became frustrated because Earvin was “being difficult.” The guards dropped him to the ground, hitting his head on a door frame, upon reaching the segregation vestibule.

Miller then described how Banta kicked Earvin and Hedden punched him in the back of the neck and the shoulder area.

“Sheffler and Banta didn’t see any injuries (on Earvin) when they walked him to segregation,” Miller said. “Banta said Earvin didn’t want to walk.”

Miller said there was “no way” Earvin left the D wing with massive injuries.

He said Sheffler joined Banta and Hedden once Earvin reached the segregation vestibule.

“If his intention in joining the escort was to be the senior officer in charge, he failed miserably,” Miller said. “If he wanted to assault Earvin, he succeeded.”

Three officers omitted beating in daily incident report

Miller described the actions of another officer who, once Earvin was placed in the segregation vestibule, turned away. “He knew what was going to happen,” he said.

Miller also described how Banta punched Earvin repeatedly, then jumped up and landed on Earvin’s exposed right side with his knees. He said Hedden also participated in the beating.

Testimony earlier in the trial described Earvin suffering a broken rib, a collapsed lung, a severe head injury and a “fist-sized” hole in his abdomen that interrupted blood flow to his colon and resulted in surgery to remove a portion of his bowel.

When Banta, Hedden and Sheffler filed incident reports, all completed by 2:17 p.m. that afternoon, Miller said all three omitted the beating.

An ambulance eventually transported Earvin to Culbertson Memorial Hospital in Rushville. As Earvin’s wounds and internal injuries worsened, a helicopter took him to St. John’s Hospital in Springfield. Miller said doctors described the injuries Earvin suffered as similar to those suffered in “a high-speed car crash.”

Miller detailed a series of phone calls between Hedden and Banta, Banta and Hendricks, Hedden and Volk, Haubrich and Sheffler and Sheffler and Banta — all before 8 p.m. that night.

“So when the Illinois State Police (investigators) showed up, not one of them mentioned being in the segregation vestibule,” Miller said. 

Attorney claims more abuse was doled out in different prison wing

Vig was more animated than any of the other attorneys who spoke Friday, speaking loudly and occasionally waving her arms. 

She questioned the credibility of three of the prison guards, claiming Hendricks claimed he only touched Earvin twice but pointed out other instances when he touched Earvin, including kicking him. Vig said a video showed Haubrich beat Earvin in the D wing, but “he got immunity and he’s still on administrative leave, making $90,000 a year since May 22, 2018.” She also said the video showed Hedden beating Earvin as well.

“I told you there will be a lot of different stories,” Vig said. “You can’t convict my client without credible evidence. No one can seem to agree on who is doing what.”

Vig also claimed much of the physical abuse was doled out in the D wing before the prison guards took Earvin to the segregation vestibule. She pointed a finger at Maj. Robert Fishel, claiming he just watched as officers beat Earvin and 325-pound corrections officer Richard Waterstraat jumped on him.

Vig said the Illinois State Police knew it was investigating a cover-up, but a slow investigation allowed the Department of Corrections to “get their stories together” or it won’t be “business as usual.”

“The nine most terrifying words are a quote from (former president) Ronald Reagan,” she said. “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

The Western Illinois Correctional Center has an “institutional problem,” Vig said. She said her client was calm and didn’t duck questions during a 17-minute interview with the ISP. She also said no one had evidence of the context of the calls that were made between all the prison guards on the night of May 17.

“You can’t guess a man into prison,” Vig said.

Wasser: Hedden made ‘Freudian slip’ in testimony

Wasser said several of the witness all admitted they were liars, but “they’re all looking out for No. 1.”

He pointed out inmate Terry Shears testified he remembered seeing Haubrich and Sgt. Derek Hasden during the beating of Earvin, but he could not recall seeing Banta. Wasser also claimed Hedden did most of the beating in the segregation vestibule.

Wasser recalled a statement made during testimony by Hedden when he said, “The realization of what I, what we had done …” He called it a “Freudian slip.”

As for the claim that Banta leaped and landed on Earvin’s ribcage with his knees, Wasser said neither Hasden, Haubrich or Lt. Matthew Lindsay testified to that actually happening. He also said corrections officer Shawn Volk remembered Banta may have straddled Earvin when he was on the ground.

“Why would Alex assault Earvin in the presence of his superior officers?” Wasser asked the jury.

He also questioned the idea that the injuries were like that of a high-speed car crash. He said Gershom Norfleet, the St. Louis County pathologist who performed the autopsy, also said Earvin’s injuries could have been the cumulative result of “several traumas.”

Wasser concluded his argument by saying a not guilty decision could mean “that we have thought long and hard, but we don’t know for sure.”

“Saying ‘we don’t know’ is not the wrong answer in the jury room,” he said.

Bass: Banta testimony like watching ‘Hogan’s Heroes’

Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass wrapped up the closing arguments, calling the “absurdity” in Vig’s and Wasser’s arguments “self evident.”

“I said to you that this case was about those three correctional officers who conspired with each other to cover all this depravity up,” he said to the jury. “I would suggest to you that that’s what the evidence proves — exactly what occurred. … Miss Vig said the officers gave two to six different stories, and that their stories don’t match. Did you hear two to six stories?”

Bass said Sheffler, Banta and Hedden conspired to commit a crime.

“(A conspiracy) can be expressed or implied,” he said. “It’s not a written contract. It can be any amount of time. It could be for an hour or two hours or a day or week or a month, but it simply means two or more people come together, expressly or implied, to agree to commit a crime. How do you prove a conspiracy? You prove it by proving that the person did exactly what they’re charged with agreeing to do.”

He said the Illinois State Police gave Banta “every opportunity” to explain what happened on May 17, 2018.

“Mr. Banta said, ‘I saw nothing. I know nothing,’” Bass said. “It was as if we were watching an episode of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ and Sgt. Schultz was saying, ‘I know nothing. I saw nothing.’”

Banta, Sheffler face sentences of up to life in prison

Bass concluded by appealing to the jury to use common sense.

“We all walked in here to court today, and it was finally a nice spring day with warmer temperatures,” Bass said. “If someone walked in with an umbrella that had water all over it, you could infer that it had rained. But maybe in between the time the person walked in the courthouse and walked in this courtroom, somebody took a bottle of water and poured it over the umbrella.

“An equally good example of circumstantial evidence is that, with Todd Sheffler on the left and Alex Banta on the right, they walked a man outside past the last camera in that prison on their way to (the segregation vestibule). There were no visible injuries and no evidence that he was massively beaten, only to find that when Mr. Earvin was later photographed within a few minutes that he was suffering from those massive injuries. 

“Now you didn’t see it rain when that water was on the umbrella, and you didn’t see what happened on a video because there were no cameras. You didn’t see Mr. Earvin get beat by three defendants, including all only two who had Mr. Earvin on each arm. … I’m going to trust your good common sense.”

If found guilty, Banta and Sheffler face a sentence of up to life in prison.

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