24-year prison term for gang member in robbery
URBANA — A Champaign teen who admitted robbing a woman and her daughter at gunpoint in their home in March has been sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Marcus Johnson, 17, of the 1700 block of Tara Drive, was prosecuted as an adult and pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery for what Champaign County Judge Heidi Ladd described as a violent assault on a family that deserved to feel safe in their own home.
And after hearing about Johnson’s obsession with a gang, Ladd said a message of deterrence had to be sent about gang-related violence.
“The toll it’s taking in this community is unacceptable and it has to stop,” said Ladd.
Johnson was initially charged with armed robbery, home invasion and aggravated robbery for a March 18 intrusion at a home in the 700 block of West Harvard Street in Champaign. He pleaded guilty to the less serious aggravated robbery and the other charges were dismissed.
Also charged as an adult with the same crimes is co-defendant Erion Davis-Murdock, 16, of Champaign. His case is unresolved.
Assistant State’s Attorney Matt Banach said a 15-year-old girl answered a knock at the door, only to have two young men push past her and ask for her brother. Even after learning the brother wasn’t there, Johnson pushed the girl to the couch and put a gun to her forehead.
The girl’s 71-year-old mother came into the room, saw what was happening, and instructed her daughter to call police. One of the two grabbed a cordless phone from her. The mother went to a bathroom to call for help and Johnson followed her, displayed a gun and took her flip phone.
After taking the phone, a Kindle Fire and another electronic tablet, the two men ran from the house. Police arrived shortly after 8 p.m. and Johnson and Davis-Murdock were caught within minutes. A backpack stuffed under a porch two blocks away contained the stolen electronics.
To aggravate Johnson’s sentence, Banach had Keith Willis, assistant superintendent of the Juvenile Detention Center, testify about three letters that Johnson wrote to people in April, while he was locked up, that contained gang references and threats to harm people in town and inside the Department of Corrections. The letters were never mailed.
Champaign police Officer Tim Atteberry also testified about a video recording taken inside his squad car as he drove the teens to the detention center that night. Banach had Ladd watch the 15-minute recording, which showed the youths engaged in continuous laughter and chatter, much of it unintelligible. They were unaware they were being recorded, Atteberry said.
“He’s laughing. He’s joking. He thinks this is funny,” said Banach, who asked for the 24-year sentence. Johnson could have received probation or as much as 30 years in prison. An extended term was available because one of the victims was over 65.
“He took the iPads, the phone, for no reason. There was no claim that he was impoverished or needed money. Nor does he have any axe to grind with (the victim’s son),” he said, calling the mother and daughter “innocent victims.”
Banach also noted that Johnson has three prior adjudications as a juvenile for which he went to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
Johnson’s attorney, Diana Lenik of Urbana, called Johnson “a follower, not a leader” and urged Ladd to give him a minimal sentence, using an argument she has made frequently.
“We’re talking about a 17-year-old boy. I realize this is an adult offense. It doesn’t mean he is one or behaved like one. The science shows your brain is not fully formed at 17.”
Lenik called the laughter on the video a result of nervousness and rejected any notion that Johnson was affiliated with a violent gang.
“It’s just a group of friends. There’s nothing illegitimate about that. He would say it’s a ... clique. It’s not a goal of the group to commit criminal acts,” Lenik said.
But Ladd didn’t buy much of Lenik’s argument, saying the victims were terrorized when they had a right to be safe in their own home.
“He’s enamored with the gang lifestyle. It defines his life. It’s not just a group of friends. It’s a violent lifestyle he appears to be embracing and it’s escalating.”
The video showed “it was an amusing source of bravado to both of them,” she said, adding that Johnson appeared “rather self-satisfied” as he watched it.
She also rejected the argument that because Johnson was adopted and reared by grandparents, that he was at a disadvantage in life.
“He’s been surrounded with an umbrella of services and he’s chosen not to embrace them,” she said.
Johnson apologized to the victim and his own family, saying “I never knew my actions would affect so many people.”
Johnson is eligible for day-for-day good time on the sentence.