Much has changed in 15 years since courthouse firebombing

URBANA — Fifteen years after hurling a firebomb toward a Champaign County judge, John Ewing continues to be diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in need of further mental health treatment. He believes he's got several billion dollars coming from a lawsuit.

On April 8, 1997, the now 52-year-old man, apparently upset that Judge George Miller had dismissed his personal-injury lawsuit, walked into Miller's third-floor courtroom in downtown Urbana during a jury trial and pitched a Molotov cocktail toward the bench.

Everyone escaped without serious injury — Miller cut his head ducking for cover under his desk and at least one juror twisted an ankle — but the resulting fire gutted the courtroom and brought instant changes in security screening and ultimately a new courthouse that opened in May 2002.

Ewing was arrested less than 10 hours after the firebombing as he was leaving a nearby motel. He has been in custody ever since.

After years of findings of unfitness, then competence, U.S. District Court Judge Michael McCuskey began Ewing's jury trial in Urbana in May 2004. One day into jury selection, he declared a mistrial because so many potential jurors knew of the incident.

Despite defense doubts about Ewing's competence, his trial went forward in Rock Island in September 2004. Jurors rejected his insanity defense and convicted Ewing of arson and using and carrying a destructive device during a violent crime.

Appearing for sentencing in January 2005, Ewing interrupted McCuskey with what the court of appeals called "delusional monologues." That prompted McCuskey to order him examined again. And again, he was found incompetent and has remained that way since.

His continued detention is the result of a "provisional" sentence of life imprisonment that is subject to alteration once he is recovered enough to be released. Given the number of years he's already served, it's unlikely Ewing would have to serve more time should he ever be found fit and no longer in need of treatment.

McCuskey receives annual reports about Ewing.

For several years, Ewing was housed at a federal medical facility in Springfield, Mo.

The most recent update on him that McCuskey received in January said Ewing has been at a federal medical facility in Butner, N.C., since April 2011. He was transferred there from one in Devens, Mass., where he assaulted a staff member.

The report concluded that Ewing continues to suffer from schizophrenia and detailed for McCuskey examples of Ewing's "paranoid and grandiose delusions" along with the many medications he takes.

"The theme most consistently reported was the belief that people, including mental health clinicians, were involved in a conspiracy to use mind control against him for financial gain," the report said.

Since the day of his arrest for the firebombing, Ewing has complained of mind control. Even before his arrest, he had a documented history of mental health problems dating to 1987.

The January report said that Ewing's focus had recently shifted.

"He is currently convinced that he will be receiving between 14 and 20 billion dollars from a lawsuit. He has insisted that his previous attorney provide legal documents contained in a duffel bag he possessed during his trial. At times, Mr. Ewing insinuated that staff was deliberately withholding his mail, thereby preventing him from receiving money owed him," the report said.

In 2007, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.

Miller, who retired from the Champaign County bench in 1999, said he preferred not to talk about the incident.

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