URBANA - An Urbana teen-ager who began the attack that led to the death of a homeless man in northeast Champaign last summer was sentenced this morning to 27 years in prison.
Nathaniel White, who will be 17 on Saturday, will have to serve the entire sentence. He was convicted by a jury in March of the first-degree murder of Robert James Nash, 55, who lived in Champaign most of his life.
Mr. Nash died from blunt force trauma and strangulation as a result of a brutal attack that included being kicked, punched, and stomped on Aug. 8 in a grassy area behind the Martin Luther King subdivision.
Four teen-age boys were charged with the murder in September. One other pleaded guilty to the murder for a 20-year sentence; another was acquitted by a jury this month; the last case is unresolved.
"I'm convinced that but for (White's) initial attack on Mr. Nash, they may have walked by and ... let him sleep," Judge Tom Difanis said. "A human life is something sacred. The fact that we attach an adjective to a man's name - homeless ... He was a human being loved by his family. He didn't deserve this at all."
Mr. Nash's sister, Hattie Paulk of Champaign, said she was satisfied with the sentence but had hoped it might even be less. White faced 20 to 60 years. Paulk knows White's family and comforted them after the jury verdict last month.
Difanis said in his 30 years in the criminal justice system, including the prosecution as state's attorney of "more murder cases than I can remember," this one was "incredibly vicious."
"This one was very, very, very, very troubling - troubling because of the viciousness of the offense and troubling because it's hard to believe our children could commit this type of offense," he said.
"Does this mean there are other children out there capable of doing this? I'm afraid so," he said.
White cried as he stood, shackled hand and foot, to give his statement to the judge.
"I'm sorry for what I done," he said. "We made a stupid mistake. I'm sorry. I understand I can never bring his life back. I'm so sorry," he said, turning to Paulk, who nodded in assent and shed tears along with White and the more than dozen supporters in the courtroom for him.
Neither prosecutor Mick McAvoy nor defense attorney John Taylor recommended a specific number of years for White.
"When the verdict came back, the court said this was tragic for both families. That's still true," said McAvoy, adding he wanted to avoid arguing from emotion. He noted White had no criminal history and was unlikely to commit another crime. But he said there was no question that he took the lead in the attack.
"If inducement means, 'Who got the ball rolling?' it's this defendant. He threw the first punch. He knocked (Mr. Nash) to the ground and started kicking him," said McAvoy.
Taylor pointed to the loving, nurturing family that raised White, having called his adoptive mother, Ernestine Pettigrew, 64, of Urbana, to testify. She said White, a nephew to her daughter-in-law, came to live with her and her husband when he was 1.
She described him as a well-mannered child who respected her and her husband. She said he had no violent tendencies, no discipline problems in school, and had never been in trouble with police prior to this.
Taylor said it was clear from positive reports for most of the eight months White has been in the Youth Detention Center that he has rehabilitative potential.
After the hearing, White's father, Leotis Pettigrew, shook his head in disbelief, as he did when the verdict was delivered in March.
"It's not right. The kid ain't a vicious kid. He (Difanis) sentenced him like he was a gunman," Pettigrew said.
At Taylor's request, Difanis set a hearing to reconsider the sentence for next week, a necessary first step in the appeal process.
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