DANVILLE — Seven years and one month after three Danville residents were gunned down in a drug dealer's attempt to recover his stolen drugs, a second man has been convicted of their murders.
A Vermilion County jury of three men and nine women deliberated for about three hours and 15 minutes Tuesday afternoon before finding Jerome J. Harris guilty of first-degree murder in the March 25, 2007 deaths of Rodney "Face" Pepper, 30; Ta'Breyon "TuTu" McCullough, 21; and Madisen Leverenz, 19.
Friends and relatives of the victims broke into tears when Circuit Judge Nancy Fahey read the verdicts.
"It's the beginning of the process of healing," Bonne Derrickson-Beecher, Ms. McCullough's grandmother, said in the courtroom, after Harris was led away in handcuffs.
"We'll never get over it," said Ms. Leverenz' father, Mac Leverenz, his arm around his wife, Candace. The couple are raising Ms. Leverenz's daughter, Alaya, now 8. "But at least we can finally put it behind us and move forward."
Jurors not only convicted the 29-year-old Danville man in all three deaths, but they also found him guilty of personally discharging a gun that resulted in the deaths of the two women.
Now Harris — who's already serving a 25-year term in the Illinois Department of Corrections for multiple drug convictions — faces a mandatory life sentence in prison. He will be sentenced on June 16.
The verdict came on the sixth day of Harris' trial in Vermilion County Circuit Court.
In December 2012, Freddell L. "Freddy Moe" Bryant, of Chicago, was convicted in U.S. District Court in Urbana of three counts of using a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime and causing the death of all three victims. He is serving three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole in a federal prison in Florida.
In her closing argument, Assistant State's Attorney Sandy Lawlyes recounted witnesses' testimony that described what led to the shootings: A couple of days before, Ms. McCullough agreed to hold two bricks of cocaine worth $50,000 for her boyfriend, Bryant, a drug dealer and general in the Black P. Stone Nation gang, at her mother's home.
The next day, Ms. Leverenz, Ms. McCullough's friend, and Mr. Pepper, a drug dealer, took the drugs and hid them at Mr. Pepper's apartment at 1707 E. Main St. Shane Savage — Mr. Leverenz' boyfriend, who dealt drugs with Mr. Pepper — took a kilo of the stolen cocaine, sold half of it and dropped off the $12,000 he made at the apartment, then went to Champaign that night.
Meanwhile, Ms. McCullough, D'Juantae Boyd and others came home from Indianapolis on the afternoon of March 24, 2007 to find the drugs stolen, so a frantic Ms. McCullough and others began looking for Ms. Leverenz. Early morning on March 25, 2007, Boyd located Ms. Leverenz at the apartment and told Ms. McCullough.
"And they're found dead by 10 o'clock," Lawlyes said of the two women, who were found on the back porch, and Mr. Pepper, whose body was found lying in the middle of East Main Street.
"Maddy was shot right above the eye. It blew out the back of her head, Lawyles said, recalling the testimony of a forensic pathologist that Ms. Leverenz was shot at close range. "Jerome Harris put that gun up to her head and shot her," Lawlyes said.
Ms. McCullough was shot twice in the head and once in the hand, indicating she was trying to protect herself, while Mr. Pepper, who was shot in the back, was "so frantic to get out he runs through the picture window," Lawlyes said.
The prosecutor reminded the jury that Ashley Brown, Mr. Pepper's neighbor, told police she saw Harris running from the crime scene. She also recalled testimony from Albert Britt, Richard Bell and James Mosely, each of whom claimed that when they shared a cell with Harris, that he bragged about killing victims.
"I knocked (Ms. Leverenz') noodle back," Lawyles said, repeating part of Mosely's testimony.
Lawlyes also recalled Bell's testimony that Harris asked him to murder Brown, who could place him at the scene.
In her summation, Public Defender Jacqueline Lacy tried to cast doubt on the credibility of those witnesses. She implied that they implicated Harris not to clear their consciences, but to get their own criminal charges dropped or, in Mosely's case, assistance with personal expenses.
Lacy said her client was a drug dealer.
"But there's a difference between being a drug dealer and a murderer, and Jerome Harris is not a murderer," said Lacy, who contended that around the time of the murders, her client was selling drugs to a woman named Deborah Plummer.
She pointed to phone records showing that calls from a number belonging to Harris were made to a phone in Plummer's name around the time of the shootings. She also pointed out that police never bothered to interview Plummer or Marshall Johnson, Bryant's brother, and Tony "Tone" Dickenson, Johnson's driver and one of the last people to be seen with Ms. McCullough, who she implied were involved in the shootings.
"They had already decided it was Jerome Harris even though the evidence didn't lead in that direction."
Both Derrickson-Beecher and the Leverenzes thanked Lawlyes and Assistant State's Attorney Chuck Mockbee, who also prosecuted the case, where the evidence wasn't as clear-cut as in the federal case.
"He admitted it," Candace Leverenz said, referring to Bryant's confession to police. Harris "denied it."
They also thanked the witnesses, including the jail house informants, for coming forward.
"They risked their lives for someone they didn't even know," Candace Leverenz said.