Champaign man's lawsuit alleges police coerced witnesses

Champaign man's lawsuit alleges police coerced witnesses

CHAMPAIGN — A Champaign man who served 18 years in prison for murder before being released by a federal judge a year ago has filed a lawsuit against the city of Champaign and six of its police officers who investigated the case.

The lawsuit filed by Teshome Campbell, now 40, alleges Champaign police coerced witnesses to falsely testify against him about his role in the murder of James Shepard, 44, who was killed in a mob-style beating on Christmas Day 1997.

In 1998, a then-22-year-old Campbell was convicted and sentenced to 55 years in prison along with Theodis White Jr., who is serving a 45-year sentence.

While imprisoned, Campbell tried repeatedly to overturn his conviction.

In December 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baker of Urbana reversed Campbell's conviction, citing ineffective assistance of counsel by his lawyer, Harvey Welch of Urbana.

Baker said Campbell may not have been convicted of murder if Welch had called three witnesses who said Campbell was not involved in the fatal beating of Mr. Shepard.

Baker ordered Campbell to be retried or released.

Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz determined it would be impossible to retry the case 20 years later and Campbell was released Jan. 29, 2016.

On Jan. 26 of this year, attorneys from the Chicago firm of Loevy and Loevy filed the suit in federal court against the city and police Deputy Chief Troy Daniels, Deputy Chief Joseph Gallo, Detective Patrick Kelly, retired Sgt. Jim Rein, former Detective Mark Strzesak (now the department's civilian evidence technician) and retired Lt. Scott Swan.

It also names "unidentified employees of the Champaign Police Department."

The suit alleges there was no physical evidence linking Campbell to the crime scene and that the state relied on testimony from Steven Peete, Damion Holt and Rita Butler that was "false" and "fabricated by the defendant police officers."

The complaint alleges Peete and Holt were the actual killers and that police promised the witnesses they wouldn't be prosecuted if they testified against Campbell.

The suit alleges that in the early-morning hours of Dec. 25, 1997, Mr. Shepard gave Butler $20 to buy cocaine, which she purchased from someone near Bellefontaine and Clock streets in Champaign.

Mr. Shepard, after using it, maintained the substance was not cocaine and returned to the area with Butler to confront the person from whom Butler said she purchased the drugs.

That resulted in a "loud, angry dispute," and several young men who approached the two from a nearby house began to beat the victim.

News-Gazette reports about the case say Campbell was allegedly the person who sold Butler the drugs.

The suit describes the beating as "brutal" with "multiple young men on one side, and only the victim on the other" and states the victim shed a lot of blood, "much of it ending up on his attackers."

Mr. Shepard was left in the street and eventually taken to the hospital, where he later died from his injuries.

The lawsuit states that Campbell was wrongly prosecuted and convicted because he would not identify the actual killers when first interviewed by Champaign police.

The suit alleges that multiple other interviewees who declined to identify beating participants were also prosecuted, but none of the young men who pleaded guilty to the crime identified Campbell as being involved, the suit says.

Of the 12 people arrested in connection with the murder, only three were tried: Bobby Joe Douglas, who was acquitted by a jury, Campbell, and White, according to News-Gazette reports.

Suit: Misconduct alleged

The lawsuit also alleges that Peete was identified by eyewitnesses as a participant in the beating, but was later coerced by police to falsely blame Campbell in exchange for immunity.

In 2007, Peete admitted he lied about Campbell's involvement and "swore that the police and (then) Assistant State's Attorney Mick McAvoy pressured him to lie," the suit says.

The suit makes similar allegations about Holt, who said he was coerced to testify against Campbell but has since admitted Campbell was not involved in Mr. Shepard's death.

It alleges Butler was pressured into incriminating Campbell so she could avoid further prosecution for a drug offense. The suit says Butler admitted in December 2014 that she lied about Campbell's involvement.

"Without the defendant officers' misconduct, (Campbell) never would have been arrested, let alone tried and convicted," the suit says, adding the city's policies and practices are what allowed Campbell to be convicted.

Aisha Davis, an attorney at Loevy and Loevy, said her firm has a partnership with the Illinois Innocence Project, a program based at the University of Illinois-Springfield that reviews cases of inmates and pursues legal relief when strong evidence of innocence exists.

The Innocence Project played a role in Campbell's exoneration.

Davis said her firm agreed to represent him because there's "concern that the police acted improperly when they brought claims against Campbell."

Champaign City Attorney Fred Stavins said he questions the nature of the lawsuit and said it is unclear why Campbell is going after police and the city when his writ of habeas corpus was ordered as a result of ineffective counsel.

Instead of calling the three eyewitnesses who could have proven Campbell's innocence, Welch stuck with a "too dark to see" defense and relied completely on the "jurors having a reasonable doubt about the state's witnesses' ability to make a positive identification," according to the final order from Baker.

Stavins: 'Excellent' officers

Stavins said he has not been in contact with the firm since the suit was filed.

"They better have evidence to back this up. If they don't, they haven't done their jobs, but I'm interested in how they will reconcile some of the allegations they made," he said.

Davis said they've filed the suit to deter this kind of behavior from police officers in the future.

"This is to stop another situation like this from happening to someone else in the future. No one else should be targeted by the police and put in prison. We want to keep that behavior from being perpetuated," she said.

Stavins called the officers named "examples of what we want officers to be."

"From what we know so far, we don't think the police officers or the city is liable for damages sought in this case. Most of those officers are still here. They are really excellent police officers. They're the top of their profession and we want to support them during this litigation," he said.

The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to attorneys' fees and costs. Campbell wants a jury trial.

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serf wrote on February 18, 2017 at 11:02 am

Looking for a payday.

And in what other profession can one win by being 'ineffective?'  If a defense attorney wins a case, they win.  If a defense attorney loses a case then says they're bad at their job, a court overturns the conviction and they essentially win anyway.  

Maybe there should be a rule that if a court overturns a conviction based on ineffective counsel, that defense attorney should lose their license to practice law since they're clearly not good at their job.  

Here's an alternative theory.  Harvey Welch didn't call the three 'witnesses' because defense attorneys also have an ethical duty to only put people on the stand who they believe will actually tell the truth.  Maybe Welch didn't call those 'witnesses' because he knew they were full of baloney. wrote on February 18, 2017 at 12:02 pm

words have meaning Fred.   You said you are going to take it to trial..Do so.  This was a case from the git go was met by silence by the community to solve this....And I reminded that drug usage is a non violent offense....It is not.