Jury convicts man in butcher knife attack on woman

URBANA - A Rantoul man who repeatedly stabbed and slashed the throat of the mother of his son was convicted Monday of attempted first-degree murder and aggravated domestic battery.

Jessie James Jr., 38, could face up to 37 years in prison when sentenced April 1 by Champaign County Judge Thomas Difanis.

A jury of seven men and five women needed only an hour to convict James of the crimes committed against Lavon Aker, 31, on Nov. 9, 2000.

Aker testified Friday that James went to the home she was sharing with her sister on Cynthia Drive in Champaign at about 8 a.m. that day. She thought he was there to drive her to work. Instead, she said, he went into the house and first threatened her with a butcher knife, then used it to slash her throat and stab her repeatedly in several other areas of her body. After she pretended to be dead, James made the final stab to her back, which punctured a lung.

She was able to call her sister, Lanette Aker, during the attack and tell her that James was in the house "killing" her. Lanette Aker testified about hurrying out of her workplace, driving home and finding her sister's bleeding body blocking the front door because she had collapsed there after James left.

James was arrested by Champaign police in his car within an hour of the stabbing.

Aker testified she was stabbed or cut 13 times, as well as having four fingers slashed, when she tried to pull the knife away from her neck.

Carle surgeon Dr. Uretz Oliphant, who treated Aker, on Monday described her injuries as life-threatening because of the proximity of the wounds to major organs, such as the heart and lungs and the major blood vessels of the neck.

James was not present for the majority of the trial, including the verdicts, having been put out of court by Difanis after he punched his court-appointed attorney, John Taylor of Champaign, in the face on Thursday. Taylor sustained a broken cheek bone and a cut under the eye. James rained at least two blows down on Taylor in front of the jury just seconds after prosecutor Kelly Griffith had begun her opening statement.

The attack prompted Difanis to declare a mistrial and begin the case anew Friday with a different jury.

James was taken into court - shackled to a chair - Monday morning to testify in his own defense. Taylor had proposed to Difanis that James testify via the video link between the jail and court, saying he believed strongly that James was going to ?act up? in an attempt to get another mistrial.

Difanis said he considered that request over the weekend and decided against it, saying there's nothing in the Supreme Court rules that allows for that.

?My concern is: We would be adding an issue that would make it easy for the appellate or Supreme Court to say, ?Do it over,'? Difanis said.

Difanis again warned James that if there were any outbursts, he would not be granting a mistrial.

?I'm not going to allow you to sabotage this case because you feel it's the best defense you have,? the judge said.

The jury was brought back in, and Taylor asked his first question.

?You are Jessie James?? he said.

?No, sir. I am Jesus Christ,? James replied.

Taylor asked him if he was with Lavon Aker on Nov. 9 and James replied, ?No. Jessie was.?

Asked if he intended to kill Aker, James' response was ?Jessie is in heaven.?

Taylor quickly concluded the questioning at that point and after a question from the assistant state's attorney inquiring if James had any medical training, James was again removed from the courtroom.

In closing arguments, Taylor tried to convince the jury that James was guilty of the aggravated domestic battery but not the attempted murder since he did not intend to kill Aker.

?It will be a test of your humanity to treat Jessie James in accordance with the law and not the way he treated Lavon Aker,? said Taylor.

But Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth Dobson argued that James indeed intended to kill Aker and displayed a picture of her neck, slashed from ear to ear, for the jury.

?There is no other reason why, than intent to kill, for cutting a person like that,? Dobson argued. And she added that the stab wound to the back after Aker pretended to be dead proved that James wanted to make sure he had killed her.

The stabbing of Aker came only nine months after James had been released from prison after having served about half of a 25-year sentence he received in Champaign County in 1988 for the attempted rape of a deaf woman. Difanis ruled that the jury would not hear about that prior conviction because of its potential prejudice to James.

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