Jury finds Danville woman guilty of first-degree murder

Jury finds Danville woman guilty of first-degree murder

DANVILLE — A 39-year-old Danville woman will likely spend the rest of her life behind bars for gunning down a man in a grocery store parking lot near the Fair Oaks public housing complex, following a minor car accident with her two children, nearly 11 months ago.

A Vermilion County jury deliberated for less than an hour before convicting Lakeisha M. Cunningham of first-degree murder in the fatal shooting of 25-year-old Justin E. Jones outside of Nettas Grocery, 1618 E. Fairchild St., early afternoon on April 27, 2017.

Vermilion County State’s Attorney Jacqueline Lacy was pleased with the verdict.

"I think the evidence supported first degree. There was nothing in our eyes that would mitigate the execution of Justin Jones," she said, adding Mr. Jones' family members wept softly when the verdict was read.

Cunningham could receive 45 years to life in prison when she's sentenced on April 25.

The jury of seven men and five women also was allowed to considered second-degree murder, appropriate if the defendant had proven that at the time of the shooting, she believed her actions were justifiable even though that belief was unreasonable.

That charge carries a lighter sentence of 20 years in prison, and only half of the term must be served.

In his closing argument, Assistant State’s Attorney Aadam Alikhan argued there was “not one iota” of evidence that showed Cunningham was justified in shooting Mr. Jones, which occurred after her son backed a gold SUV into the victim’s blue Monte Carlo in the parking lot, and Mr. Jones took the keys to the SUV.

Alikhan reminded the jury of a Facebook video showing the activity leading up to the shooting and a Danville Housing Authority video showing that activity as well as the shooting and immediate aftermath. Both were played during the trial.

Alikhan said Mr. Jones was seen asking Cunningham’s children, Rashon Wilson and Lakeisha Booker, for money to fix his car.

“No threats were made. There was no aggression toward these children,” he said.

Seven minutes later, Alikhan continued, Cunningham arrived with a loaded gun, got out of her vehicle and shot Mr. Jones. Then she was seen yelling at Mr. Jones after he’d fallen to the ground.

“You don’t take justice into your own hands,” Alikhan said, adding Cunningham “became the judge, jury and the executioner. Within five seconds (of arriving), she executed him.”

Public defender Mike Mara, Cunningham’s attorney, said his client admitted to shooting Mr. Jones. But he asked jurors to focus on the reason.

Mara, in arguing for a second-degree murder conviction, reminded the panel of Cunningham’s testimony about past incidents at Fair Oaks, in which, she claimed, her children were attacked.

“She told you for two years, she’d been having trouble, and she went to everyone she could,” he said. “No one would help her.”

Mara said one incident -- in which, Cunningham testified, Mr. Jones came to her home with a loaded gun with the intention of fighting her children -- occurred three days before the shooting.

While prosecution witnesses painted the car accident as a “calm, peaceful situation,” Mara said the videos show it was “stressful.

“There are two separate times when Justin Jones pushes or squares off with Rashon Wilson,” he said.

So, when Wilson came running to her apartment after the accident, Mara said, “Lakeisha did what any mother would do. She went there to protect her daughter.”

When Cunningham asked Mr. Jones to return her daughter’s keys, he refused," Mara said, recalling his client’s testimony. Then Cunningham heard Mr. Jones say, “Here come my boys.

“In that moment, she thought she was going to die," he said. "She thought her daughter was going to die. ... She did what she needed to do to protect her daughter and her family."

In her rebuttal, Lacy argued that Cunningham lied on the stand about prior incidents and reporting them, watching her son being chased by two boys prior to the shooting and contacting police following her crime, among other things. She reminded jurors of testimony that corroborated that.

Lacy also played the housing authority video, which showed the accident, ensuing argument and Cunningham’s arrival. In the video, Cunningham got out of a car, approached a small group and raised the gun at Mr. Jones.

One of his loved one sitting in the gallery gasped softly when Mr. Jones fell forward onto the ground, then wept softly as Lacy continued.

“That was not second-degree murder,” the prosecutor said, pointing out that Mr. Jones was alone and unarmed.

She also mimicked a gesture that Cunningham made over Mr. Jones when he was on the ground.

“She wasn’t afraid. She wasn’t scared,” Lacy said, adding Cunningham watched her daughter retrieve her keys and then they both drove off. Cunningham then fled to Chicago.

“She didn’t call the police. She didn’t call for an ambulance. She left Justin to die in that parking lot. That is first-degree murder.”

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