Questions Remain About Illinois Prisoner’s Death, A Year After ‘Altercation’ With Guards
Larry Earvin died at age 65 after an altercation with prison staff, according to his certificate of death. That was a year ago. But even now his family and the general public know almost nothing about what happened between Earvin and guards at Western Illinois Correctional Center on May 17, 2018.
Earvin had 15 rib fractures, multiple abrasions and hemorrhages and died from blunt trauma to the chest and abdomen in June of 2018. The coroner ruled his death a homicide, according to records first reported by WBEZ.
Earvin’s family filed a lawsuit against four guards, as well as the prison’s warden and assistant warden. But now, lawyers for the guards have filed a motion to place the family’s lawsuit on hold because they believe the FBI and the U.S. attorney are involved in grand jury proceedings that may result in criminal charges against the officers.
The case of Earvin’s death has been murky from the start.
In June of last year, WBEZ filed a Freedom of Information Act request for reports on Earvin’s death, but the Illinois Department of Corrections refused to provide the documents, citing an ongoing FBI investigation into the death. In November 2018, a public access counselor with the Illinois attorney general issued an opinion that IDOC had improperly withheld the records from WBEZ, but the IDOC still refuses to release them. It has also refused to release surveillance video.
A lawyer for Earvin’s family said the family remains largely in the dark and wants details about how their loved one died.
Advocates have raised concerns that the lack of transparency around prison deaths makes it easier for prisons to hide abuse and medical neglect.
At least 166 people died while in Illinois prisons from January 2017 to September 2018, according to records obtained by WBEZ. In around half of those cases, IDOC’s research department had no cause of death listed. A bill that would force prisons and jails in Illinois to provide information about how people in their custody die is currently in the state legislature.
According to documents obtained by WBEZ, four prison guards were placed on leave following the 2018 incident: Sgt. Willie Hedden, Lts. Benjamin Burnett and Blake Haubrich, and Correctional Officer Alex Banta. Lawyers for the prison guards refused to comment or were not identified in court documents.
It is not the first time Sgt. Willie Hedden has been accused of excessive force. In 2006, Michael Thomas filed a lawsuit against Hedden and other officers, accusing them of beating him while he was in shackles during a transfer to another prison. A jury sided with the guards.
Larry Earvin lived with schizophrenia, according to his family, and was homeless at the time of his arrest. According to a police report, he stole watches from a hospital gift shop, and then attempted to sell them on the street to a woman. He and the woman agreed on a price — $11 — and as she was handing over the cash, he “forcibly grabbed the money and the victims left hand while also smacking away the victim's right hand.” He was convicted of robbery and was scheduled for release just a few months after he died.
The FBI confirmed that an investigation into Earvin’s death is open and ongoing, but would not provide further comment. A spokesperson for the Central District of Illinois U.S. attorney’s office also would not comment.
Shannon Heffernan is a criminal justice reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @shannon_h.