SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — A state prison guard on Tuesday pleaded guilty to federal felony charges related to the 2018 beating death of an inmate at Western Illinois Correctional Center.
Willie Hedden, 42, of Mount Sterling, entered the plea to two counts of civil rights violations and one count of providing misleading information in the subsequent investigation of the May 17, 2018 injuries sustained by 65-year-old Larry Earvin.
Earvin was airlifted from the prison, about 250 miles (400 kilometres) southwest of Chicago, and died five weeks later at a southern Illinois prison infirmary. An autopsy ruled the death a homicide due to blunt force trauma.
The two civil rights counts each carry penalties of as much as life in prison.
In exchange for his guilty plea before U.S. District Judge Richard Mills, the government agreed to seek dismissal of three other counts involving destruction of or falsifying records in an investigation and intimidation of a witness.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass indicated during Tuesday’s hearing conducted by video conference that Hedden has agreed to co-operate in the ongoing investigation, in which two of Hedden’s Illinois Department of Corrections colleagues face similar charges.
Hedden was charged in December 2019 in the death of Earvin, along with correctional Lt. Todd Sheffler of Mendon and officer Alex Banta of Quincy, on charges of conspiracy to deprive civil rights, deprivation of civil rights, obstruction of an investigation, falsification of documents and misleading conduct. Sheffler and Banta have pleaded not guilty.
Mills scheduled Hedden’s sentencing for July 21, though he agreed to consider Bass’ request to delay sentencing until after Sheffler and Banta’s trial. Later Tuesday, Mills set their trial for June 28.
On both civil rights charges, Hedden faces up to life imprisonment and fines of $250,000 each. The charge of engaging in misleading information carries a prison term of up to 20 years and a $250,000 fine.
The indictment alleged that on May 17, 2018, Hedden, Sheffler and Banta were forcibly moving Earvin from residential housing to the Mount Sterling prison’s segregation unit when they beat him, without justification, while he was handcuffed behind his back and posed no threat.
An autopsy determined Earvin’s death was a homicide. It recorded that Earvin suffered 15 rib fractures, a punctured colon, and two dozen or more abrasions, hemorrhages and lacerations. Surgery to remove a portion of his bowel followed the injury.
Earvin, who was serving a six-year sentence for robbery in Cook County and was scheduled to be paroled in September 2018, died at a Centralia Correctional Center hospital on June 26.
Hedden remains free on bond upon Bass’ recommendation, given his agreement to co-operate and recent health problems. The Illinois Department of Corrections put Hedden, Sheffler and Banta on suspension without pay pending judicial verdict in December 2019. Employees in Hedden’s position typically face a Corrections Department discharge hearing, the results of which must approved by the state’s personnel agency, the Department of Central Management Services.
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John O’Connor, The Associated Press