URBANA – Phillip Harris admitted that he repeatedly beat a Parkland College police officer in the head so his friend could stab him and told police that he hoped he would die for what he had done.
His mother, Sherry Harris, said her 17-year-old was prepared to hear the worst.
Both appeared stunned late Thursday afternoon when a Champaign County jury acquitted him of the Aug. 4, 2005, murder of Peter McLaughlin. The 45-year-old Urbana man died from multiple stab wounds inflicted upon him in his own home by his adoptive son, Paul McLaughlin, 21.
Wearing the suit he's had on all week and shackled at his hands and feet, Harris was quickly escorted from the courtroom after hearing the verdict. Despite the acquittal, Harris remained in the county jail Thursday night because he has a theft charge pending in juvenile court.
Sherry Harris screamed out repeatedly, "Thank you Jesus," and rolled on the floor of Judge Tom Difanis' courtroom crying as her other children begged for her to regain her composure.
Two of Mr. McLaughlin's brothers, Kevin McLaughlin and Brian McLaughlin, an aunt, family friends and co-workers of Mr. McLaughlin from the Parkland College Police Department sat in silence or cried quietly as they witnessed Ms. Harris' display and the information sank in.
After the jurors left, Kevin McLaughlin was quick to comfort Assistant State's Attorney Duke Harris, who prosecuted Harris, Paul McLaughlin and C.J. Tucker for Mr. McLaughlin's murder.
"I'm sorry," the prosecutor told the McLaughlin brothers as he sat on a bench in the back of the courtroom, his head in his hands.
Paul McLaughlin, 21, who lived in his father's house at 603 E. Florida Ave., U, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in November and was sentenced to 45 years in prison. Tucker, 16, who lived in the 2400 block of Campbell Drive, Champaign, pleaded guilty in June to armed violence and concealment of a homicidal death for a 19-year sentence.
After the murder, the three teens stashed Mr. McLaughlin's body in the crawl space of his home, where he lay for four days until Urbana police found him based on information that Harris supplied them.
It was common knowledge around the courthouse that Duke Harris and defense attorneys Ed Piraino and Walter Ding of Champaign were trying to work out a plea but could not agree on the number of years for a sentence. Piraino even told Difanis in open court before the trial started Monday that Harris was going to trial against their advice.
Jurors sent out questions to the judge during their deliberations that indicated they were struggling with the accountability theory.
Duke Harris had maintained in his closing argument that the law was clear that Harris was accountable for the actions of McLaughlin.
"It is sufficient that they got together to commit an offense," said the prosecutor, who is no relation to the defendant.
Conceding that Harris was cooperative with Urbana police who investigated Mr. McLaughlin's disappearance and death, Duke Harris noted that the teen initially minimized his own role and left out information about the involvement of Tucker.
Phillip Harris told police he may have hit Mr. McLaughlin two or four times after Paul summoned him to the basement. But an autopsy revealed eight distinct blows to the back of Mr. McLaughlin's head.
Duke Harris also argued that the fact that Harris told police that he and McLaughlin didn't just shoot Mr. McLaughlin because they didn't have a gun showed they had a preconceived plan to harm him.
"This wasn't about a beating. This wasn't about getting Peter out of Paul's space. This wasn't about anything but murder. Paul McLaughlin hated Peter McLaughlin with every fiber of his body. Paul wanted Peter out of the picture and he knew he couldn't do it himself. He wasn't big enough or strong enough," he said.
But Piraino argued that Paul McLaughlin was the one who should be held accountable for the actions of Phillip Harris, not the other way around.
"Paul was much older than Phillip and more streetwise," said Piraino, noting that Paul McLaughlin let Harris use his credit cards and shoot his gun.
Prosecutor Harris countered that the credit cards and the gun belonged to the older McLaughlin and were being used illegally by his son.
"Phillip Harris doesn't get to beat somebody half senseless with a night stick, then step back and say, 'I'm not responsible,'" Duke Harris said.