An Illinois prison guard pleaded guilty to federal charges Tuesday that he participated in the beating of a Black prisoner who later died from his injuries. Willie Hedden admitted he violated the civil rights of Larry Earvin, 65, while Earvin was handcuffed at Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling, Illinois. Hedden also admitted that he lied about the assault when he filed false reports.
The other two officers still face charges of violating Earvin’s civil rights and obstruction for trying to cover up the incident and lying to investigators.
According to the federal indictment, Hedden, Todd Sheffler and Alex Banta, assaulted Earvin “without legal justification while he was restrained … and while he posed no physical threat to the defendants or other correctional officers.”
Earvin died from blunt trauma to the chest and abdomen in June 2018, six weeks after the beating. The autopsy report found Earvin had sustained 15 rib fractures, and multiple abrasions and hemorrhages. The coroner ruled his death a homicide, as first reported by WBEZ.
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 sentenced to 6 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. He died a few months before he was scheduled for release.
Before Earvin’s death, an independent prison watchdog group had flagged major concerns with staff conduct at the Western Illinois prison. A 2017 report from the John Howard Association said “several inmates reported that correctional officers who assault inmates wrongly accused the inmate of ‘resisting’ to justify use of force. Inmates stated areas reportedly lacking camera coverage were areas where such staff on inmate assaults occurred.”
The report also said some prisoners said guards were discriminatory toward the elderly and disabled and used racist language.
In a written statement, Lindsey Hess, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said the department “immediately launched” an investigation following the 2018 incident and referred the case to the Illinois State Police within 24-hours. The case was later turned over to the FBI. She said the department cooperated fully with authorities and all staff were immediately placed on leave. All officers are currently suspended.
Hedden is set to be sentenced in July and remains free on bond.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Willie Hedden’s employment status with the Illinois Department of Corrections. Hedden remains employed, but is suspended. WBEZ regrets the error.