Hedden gets six years as third and final guard connected with inmate death is sentenced
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Willie Hedden, 43, a former sergeant at the Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling, was sentenced on March 22 to six years’ imprisonment, to be followed by five years of supervised release, for civil rights deprivation resulting in bodily injury and death and obstruction of justice offenses in connection with the death of Larry Earvin, an inmate at the facility.
In December 2019, a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Hedden, of Mt. Sterling; Todd Sheffler, 54, of Mendon; and Alex Banta, 31, of Quincy, charging each of them with civil rights resulting in bodily injury and death and obstruction offenses.
Hedden accepted responsibility for his crimes by pleading guilty in March 2022 to conspiracy to deprive civil rights and deprivation of civil rights under color of law resulting in bodily injury and death and conspiracy to engage in misleading conduct.
“What I brought upon them is a horrible tragedy that did not need to happen. For that I am truly sorry. …,” Hedden said as reported by John O’Connor of the Associated Press. “I chose this. Mr. Earvin didn’t have a say. Other than an apology, I thought the only thing I could give Mr. Pippion is the truth, despite how horrible and graphic it was to hear, at least he’d know what happened that day.”
At the sentencing hearing in front of Senior U.S. District Judge Sue E. Myerscough, the government summarized the evidence from those trials. During the trials, the government presented evidence that Hedden, and co-defendants Sheffler, who was a lieutenant, and Banta, who was a correctional officer, participated in the May 17, 2018, assault of Earvin, 65, during their forcible escort of Earvin from the residential housing unit of the prison to the segregation housing unit while he was restrained and handcuffed behind his back and while he posed no physical threat to the defendants or other correctional officers. The government presented further evidence, and Hedden admitted in his plea agreement, that Hedden, as a sergeant and therefore a senior officer to co-defendant Banta, had a duty to intervene to prevent the assault in which he also participated. The assault resulted in serious bodily injury to Earvin, including multiple broken ribs, a punctured mesentery, and other serious internal injuries, and resulted in Earvin’s death in June 2018. After the assault, all three defendants failed to ensure Earvin received medical care and instead sought medical attention for their own minor scratches and thereafter falsified incident reports that they filed with prison officials and lied to the Illinois State Police by denying any knowledge of or participation in the assault.
Also at the sentencing, the government presented evidence that it was part of the culture at the facility to abuse inmates and lie to cover up the abuse. At Sheffler’s and Banta’s prior sentencings, during which Judge Myerscough sentenced each of them to a total of 20 years’ imprisonment, the government summarized the evidence establishing that Banta had inflicted the most serious blows leading to Earvin’s death, including jumping in the air and landing on Earvin with both knees. In recommending a reduced sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment, the government advised the court of Hedden’s acceptance of responsibility and remorse for his crimes.
At the first trial in April 2022, Banta was convicted of all five charges in the indictment. The jury in that joint trial was unable to reach verdicts as to Sheffler, resulting in a retrial in August 2022 at which he was convicted of the same charges.
“At the sentencings, we advised the court that the government’s job is to seek justice and not to win, and that an appropriate sentence in this case should include justice for the victim, Mr. Earvin,” said U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Harris. “We hope that the convictions of Todd Sheffler, Alex Banta, and Willie Hedden and now their imposed sentences provide a measure of justice for Larry Earvin and his family. We also hope it serves as a warning to all those who would abuse governmental power that they will be held accountable under the law. Although the vicious and brutal beating of Mr. Earvin cost him his life, and that is a loss that can never be remedied, all of those persons whom the evidence established violated Mr. Earvin’s constitutional rights and caused his death (Sheffler, Hedden, and Banta) have been and are being held accountable. Our prosecution of this case demonstrates our continued commitment to equal justice under the law and to protecting society’s vulnerable, including those in our prisons.”
Harris added that his office also wanted to express its appreciation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Springfield Office and highlighted the complete cooperation of the Illinois State Police and the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC), for their thorough and professional investigation of this most important civil rights matter. Harris also especially recognized and thanked the efforts of FBI Special Agents Angela Bray and Price McCarty for their tireless efforts, without which a just outcome in this matter would not have been possible. In addition, Harris noted the important testimony of IDOC witnesses who initially participated in the cover up of these offenses, but ultimately came forward and told the truth about the events surrounding Mr. Earvin’s death. Holding the defendants accountable for their murder of Mr. Earvin would not have been possible without their testimony. Finally, Harris noted that the actions of a few here had unfairly tarnished the reputations of the men and women in law enforcement who honorably serve their communities with professionalism on a daily basis.
“While the conduct of Willie Hedden and his co-defendants is not characteristic of the vast majority of those working in law enforcement, it unfortunately undermines the efforts of officers who serve with integrity and who bear the responsibility to respect and defend the rights of those under their watch,” said FBI Springfield Special Agent in Charge David Nanz. “Hedden’s actions tarnished the reputation and badge worn proudly by the many hard-working and upstanding officers who abide by their oath. The FBI is unyielding in our commitment to zealously protect the rights of all Americans and to hold accountable anyone charged with safeguarding those rights.”
“ISP thoroughly investigates civil rights violations to hold those who break the law accountable,” said Illinois State Police Director Brendan F. Kelly. “This type of conduct is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.”
The statutory penalties for each of the civil rights resulting in death charges are up to life imprisonment. The statutory penalties for each of the obstruction of justice charges are up to 20 years of imprisonment.
The case was the result of a joint investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of Illinois, the FBI-Springfield Field Office, and the Illinois State Police Division of Internal Investigation, with the cooperation of the Illinois Department of Corrections. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Timothy A. Bass and Eugene L. Miller represent the government in the prosecution.
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