2nd officer in inmate's fatal beating gets same 20-year term

The second of three former correctional officers has been sentenced in the fatal beating of a state prisoner and received a 20-year prison term

John O'Connor
Monday 20 March 2023 22:36 GMT
Illinois Inmate Death Guards
Illinois Inmate Death Guards (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The second of three former correctional officers sentenced in the fatal beating of a state inmate received a 20-year prison term Monday, the same as a co-conspirator despite a judge's declaration he could have stopped the attack as the senior officer.

U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough sentenced Todd Sheffler, a 54-year-old former correctional lieutenant, on two federal civil rights violations and various other counts for the attempted cover up of the brutal beating of Larry Earvin on May 17, 2018.

The federal government had sought a life sentence. Sheffler's lawyers had asked for 2 1/2 years for the beating of Earvin, 65, as the prisoner was being transferred to a segregation unit at Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mount Sterling.

In an emotional statement in court, Sheffler fumbled with shackled hands and wiped tears from his eyes with a tissue. He said he accepted responsibility “for what I did or didn't do” that caused Earvin's death.

Then, looking at Earvin's son Larry Pippion, who was seated in the first row in court, the ex-guard said with his voice rising to a shout, “I did not put hands on your father. If it has to be life, let it be life, but I will not lie to favor someone's conviction record.”

He added, “If there's anything I can do for the Earvin family, I will do it. I expect nothing less than your hatred.”

Along with Sheffler, former officers Alex Banta, 31, and Willie Hedden, 43 were charged with conspiracy to deprive civil rights, deprivation of civil rights, obstruction of an investigation, falsification of documents and misleading conduct.

Hedden pleaded guilty and testified for the government. Scheduled to be sentenced Wednesday, he declined comment outside the courthouse.

Myerscough sentenced Sheffler, like Banta last week, to 15 years on each civil rights charge, to run concurrently, and five years each on the other charges, also concurrently.

“You were an active participant,” Myerscough told Sheffler in explaining his sentence. “We're well past the point of minimizing conduct and shifting blame. ... Three witnesses testified that you contributed to the assault. You were the senior officer and could have stopped it.”

Earvin was late in reporting for outdoor yard time and was ordered back to his cell at the prison in Mount Sterling, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) southwest of Chicago. He allegedly became combative and an “officer in distress” call summoned dozens of officers. Outside the housing unit, Banta, Hedden and Sheffler escorted Earvin, handcuffed behind his back, to the segregation unit.

Inside that facility's vestibule, where there are no security cameras, testimony indicated the three officers threw Earvin into a wall, then kicked, punched and stomped him.

In Myerscough's words, Banta delivered “the most serious and depraved blow” by jumping up and landing on Earvin's mid-section with both knees. Earvin suffered 15 broken ribs and abdominal injuries so severe that a portion of his bowel was surgically removed. He died June 26, more than a month after the beating.

In his statement, Sheffler admitted for the first time that he saw Banta jump and come down on his knees. He said he couldn't see but assumed he landed on Earvin and could not persuade himself to tell the truth because Banta had two small children and another on the way and “I was aware of the implications” if Banta's action was known.

Like Banta, Sheffler offered an indictment of the Department of Corrections, derided its effort to offer mental health treatment, and said its main goal is to “cover the state’s ass.”

In sentencing Banta, Myerscough acknowledged he had been “caught up in the culture” of acting on or witnesses violence against inmates and keeping quiet about it.

Sheffler attorney Sara Vig noted that her client didn’t join the escort until Earvin was outside the housing unit and that testimony revealed Earvin was handled roughly inside, including testimony by one of the 31 officers who responded to the distress call that he had stomped on a prone Earvin just inside the housing unit door. She wondered why no one else has been held accountable.

“Imagine the change in the system if all 31 were charged,” Vig said. “Justice can’t be meted out on my client’s back.”

Department of Corrections spokesperson Naomi Puzzello said that staff and inmate safety is the agency’s top priority.

“Over the last few years, the department has worked diligently to expand security measures statewide and improve its responsiveness to the concerns of individuals in custody,” Puzzello said in a statement.

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