A contrite Willie Hedden, the last of three ex-correctional officers convicted in the beating death of an Illinois prison inmate, was sentenced Wednesday to six years in federal prison after pleading guilty to civil rights violations and obstruction and testifying against his codefendants.
U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough gave Hedden, 44, a sentence nearly one-quarter the length of the 20 years she handed 31-year-old Alex Banta and Todd Sheffler, 54, for a violent attack on Larry Earvin, an inmate at Western Illinois Correctional Center, in 2018.
Hedden, an 18-year Department of Corrections veteran, admitted punching, stomping and kicking the 65-year-old Earvin, who was handcuffed behind his back, in the entryway to a segregation unit where there are no surveillance cameras.
Speaking to the court before sentencing, Hedden turned to Earvin’s son, Larry Pippion, 51, and apologized.
“What I brought upon them is a horrible tragedy that did not need to happen. For that I am truly sorry. …,” Hedden said. “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.”
Pippion sat through two trials, testified at sentencing for Banta and Sheffler and questioned a system that incarcerated his mentally ill father on a theft charge. He said he accepted Hedden’s apology.
“He was the only one who didn’t go to trial. He was real sincere,” Pippion said. “He realized he made a terrible mistake and he accepted responsibility.
“That was the big deal. The others lied all the way through.”
In December 2019, Hedden, Sheffler and Banta were charged with deprivation of civil rights resulting in death, conspiracy to deprive civil rights, obstruction of an investigation, falsification of documents and misleading conduct.
On May 17, 2018, 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 southwest of Chicago. He allegedly became combative, and an “officer in distress” call summoned dozens of guards. Outside the housing unit, Banta, Hedden and Sheffler escorted Earvin, handcuffed behind his back, to the segregation unit.
Security video captured the bulk of Earvin’s “seg walk” and he was upright as he entered the segregation vestibule. Out of sight of security cameras, the three officers threw Earvin head-first into a wall, then kicked, punched and stomped him, Hedden and others testified.
Myerscough decreed that Banta delivered “the most serious and depraved blow” by jumping up and landing on Earvin’s mid-section with both knees. Inside segregation, staff members picked him up and carried him, incoherent and bleeding from the head, to the “cage,” or the unit’s holding cell.
Finally, vomiting and dropping blood pressure prompted officials to get Earvin airlifted to Springfield for emergency surgery. 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.
Chicago Tribune editors’ top story picks, delivered to your inbox each afternoon.
“Mr. Hedden became the government’s surveillance video,” Hedden’s lawyer, Mark Wykoff, told Myerscough.
On cross-examination in the first trial, Hedden got tripped up on facts and was forced to acknowledge his testimony that day differed on several particular facts from previous statements. He admitted that before his guilty plea, he had lied “numerous times” about his culpability and told defense attorneys he would not find credible anyone who lied to the FBI.
But Myerscough allowed jurors to ask questions of each witness, and Hedden’s tearful response to one asking why they should believe he changed was moving. Wallowing in self-pity, Hedden said he realized he should direct his distress to Earvin’s family and thus completed a cycle of emotions that went from invincibility through fear, self-preservation and acceptance.
In requesting a 10-year sentence, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass reminded Myerscough of oft-repeated testimony about a prison environment that condones roughing up prisoners and keeping quiet about it, but that Hedden had broken “that culture of obstruction.”
Myerscough sentenced Hedden to 72 months each on the civil rights counts and 72 months on a witness tampering charge, with the sentences to run concurrently. She dismissed the other charges.
Sheffler and Banta both received concurrent 15-year sentences for the civil rights violations and 5-year concurrent sentences on each of the other charges.
“You were a crucial witness to as well as a participant in this assault,” Myerscough said. “But you came forward and you were as honest as you can be.”