SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — A former state corrections officer was sentenced on Thursday to 20 years in federal prison for his role in the beating death of a prison inmate in May 2018.
Alex Banta, 31, of Quincy was “caught up in the culture” of silence surrounding physically assaulting inmates but there was no excuse for his treatment of 65-year-old Larry Earvin at Western Illinois Correctional Center, said U.S. District Judge Sue Myerscough.
In a statement to the court, Banta expressed regret and took responsibility for his actions, but corroborated trial testimony that rough treatment of prisoners was not only condoned but expected at the prison in Mount Sterling, 250 miles (400 kilometers) southwest of Chicago.
Following a four-week trial, a jury convicted Banta in April 2022 of conspiracy to deprive civil rights, deprivation of civil rights, obstruction of an investigation, falsification of documents and misleading conduct.
He faced up to life in prison. Myerscough sentenced him to 15 years on the civil rights charges and five years on the other counts, to run consecutively.
“You were one of the younger officers caught up in the culture at Western of ‘see no evil’ and ‘snitches get stitches,’ which you learned from your superiors, but it in no way excuses your conduct,” Myerscough said. “The governor has replaced the warden and implemented other reforms, so hopefully this culture has changed already.”
Earvin’s beating on May 17, 2018, resulted in 15 broken ribs and abdominal injuries so severe that a portion of his bowel was surgically removed. He died June 26.
“What type of person does it take to assault a 65-year-old man who’s handcuffed behind his back?” remarked Earvin’s brother Willie Earvin Jr., 74, who testified for the prosecution. “I’m a Vietnam veteran and we weren’t allowed to do that to prisoners.”
Other guards testified that Earvin, having reported too late for a break in the yard, refused to return to his cell and allegedly became combative. That prompted an “officer in distress” call to which all available officers are required to respond. Dozens did so and then several, including Banta, escorted him to the segregation unit.
He was handled roughly in the housing unit. But witnesses and medical experts testified that the debilitating and eventually fatal injuries were the result of kicking, punching, stomping and jumping on a prone Earvin in the segregation unit’s vestibule, where there are no security cameras. Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Bass declared that the fatal blow to Earvin came when Banta jumped up and landed on the inmate’s abdomen with both knees.
Charged along with Banta were correctional Lt. Todd Sheffler of Mendon and Sgt. Willie Hedden of Mount Sterling. Sheffler was a co-defendent with Banta but in his first trial, a jury could not reach a verdict. He was retried last summer and convicted of the same counts as Banta in August. Hedden pleaded guilty in March 2021 to the more serious charges and testified against both Banta and Sheffler.
Sheffler is scheduled for sentencing on Monday and Hedden on Wednesday. ___ Follow Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor
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