Closing arguments begin in federal trial for Mount Sterling prison guards

Paul Findley Federal Building

The Paul Findley Federal Building in downtown Springfield. Inside is the U.S. District Courthouse, where the federal trial for Alex Banta and Todd Sheffler is held. | David Adam

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Closing arguments started Friday afternoon in the federal trial for two prison guards at the Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mount Sterling.

Two defense witnesses and a rebuttal witness for the prosecution were on the stand Friday morning at the U.S. District Courthouse. U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough then read jury instructions before dismissing for lunch.

The trial began March 28 for Todd Sheffler, 53, of Mendon, and Alex Banta, 30, of Quincy. They 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. 

The trial resumed for the first time since Meyerscough sent the jury home Tuesday morning because of “technical difficulties,” according to the chief deputy at the U.S. District Courthouse. However, Toscia Pippion, Earvin’s daughter-in-law, said an FBI agent told her and her husband, Larry Pippion, about 45 minutes before the trial resumed Tuesday that Banta was “in the ICU with a tube in his nose.”

Banta was in the courtroom Friday.

Friday’s proceedings started with Sheffler telling Myerscough he would not testify in the case. Sara Vig, Sheffler’s attorney, then announced her defense would rest.

Stanley Wasser, Banta’s attorney, called Josh Eichelberger of Versailles, a correctional vocational instructor at the Western Illinois Correctional Center, to the stand. 

Eichelberger started his shift on May 17, 2018, at 3 p.m. — 90 minutes after the alleged attacks on Earvin. The first time Eichelberger saw Earvin was when he was sitting in a holding cage. He described Earvin as sitting in a chair with bandages on his head.

“I asked how he was doing, and he said he was OK,” Eichelberger said.

Eichelberger later testified Earvin had vomited on the floor, then was moved to a different cell in the health care unit.

“I asked him if he was OK, and he nodded his head,” he said. “He never complained to me.”

Eichelberger said he assisted transporting Earvin in a wheelchair to the sally port in the prison so an ambulance could take him away.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass cross-examined Eichelberger, asking about Earvin’s condition.

“I assumed his condition was getting worse,” Eichelberger said. “It’s not like anybody sat me down to tell me (what had happened earlier).”

Johnny Barfield of Mount Sterling, a sergeant at the WICC, remembered people running by his window when a code was called. He said he later saw five WICC officers — Banta, Sheffler, Hedden, Brett Hendricks and Shawn Volk — escorting Earvin to the segregation unit of the prison. 

“He was slumped forward,” Barfield said. “It looked like he was worn out.”

During cross-examination from Bass, Barfield testified he remembered hearing Banta screaming at Earvin to walk. He recalled seeing an “ugly cut” on the left side of Earvin’s forehead, and he also described Earvin as “a grumpy old man.”

The defense for Banta rested after Barfield’s testimony.

Bass called FBI Special Agent Angela Bray to the stand as a rebuttal witness. She responded to several questions about clips from a video interview she conducted with Terry Shears, an inmate in the WICC.

Shears said about “10 to 12 people” were in the room when Earvin was reportedly on the ground, where guards punched and kicked him. He said he couldn’t identify everybody in the room because he was on the phone with his girlfriend at the same time. However, he did specifically identify Lt. Blake Haubrich and Sgt. Derek Hasden.

During the interview with Bray, Shears tugged on his shirt and said about the officers involved with the alleged beating, “They need to have on what I have on. That’s what I believe in my heart. I may not have the exact number of officers, but one thing is for certain. They did it.”

The prosecution rested at 11:08 a.m., and Myerscough started reading jury instructions.

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