Jim Dey | Shaky facts, 18 years in prison prompt city to pay up

Jim Dey | Shaky facts, 18 years in prison prompt city to pay up

Early in the morning — about 2:30 a.m. — on Christmas Day in 1997, a local man decided to get a head start on his holiday celebration.

He drove to the 200 block of East Bellefontaine Street in Champaign and purchased a small quantity of what he thought was cocaine. Shortly thereafter, 44-year-old James Shepherd of Urbana realized he'd been duped — sold phony cocaine — and returned to the scene to confront the salesman.

It was then that Shepherd was set upon by a gang congregating in the neighborhood and beaten to death.

Twelve men were ultimately charged in the case, three of them with murder.

One man was found not guilty.

Another man, Theodis White Jr., was convicted and sentenced to 45 years in prison. An inmate at a state prison in Jacksonville, the 42-year-old White is not scheduled to be released until June 2020.

The third, Teshome Campbell, the alleged salesman of the phony cocaine, was convicted of murder and sentenced to 55 years in prison.

In early 2016, Campbell's conviction was overturned after a federal judge concluded that Campbell's defense lawyer ineffectively represented his client because he failed to fully investigate the case.

Last week, Campbell, about 40, was the recipient of a $3.5 million out-of-court settlement of the lawsuit he filed against the City of Champaign and the officers involved in his case.

Campbell's lawyers alleged that police persuaded witnesses to lie about Campbell's role in the killing. City officials flatly rejected that claim, contending that they agreed to the big payoff to settle the matter because they feared an even bigger award if the city went to trial and lost.

What happened here?

It's a fairly typical tale of an old case, witnesses lacking credibility, amoral mob behavior, recanted testimony, hindsight and cost/benefit analyses aimed at avoiding unaffordable risks.

It's impossible to say with certainty who did what to Mr. Shepherd.

As demonstrated by the acquittal of one defendant, the case was a close one because witness testimony was compromised by the dark early evening hours, consumption of alcohol and drugs by witnesses with questionable backgrounds and the helter-skelter conduct of the large group of people who were present.

Of the 12 people initially charged, charges were dismissed against five. Four pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for sentences of probation or prison.

In Campbell's case, Urbana defense lawyer Harvey Welch based his defense on the contention that it was too dark for the witnesses to see whether Campbell participated in the beating. He contended the state did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Two of the witnesses who pleaded guilty to lesser charges testified (they have since recanted their testimony) against Campbell under a grant of immunity.

They told jurors he participated in the beating. Jurors apparently found their testimony as well as statements from other witnesses compelling enough to support a guilty verdict.

"I promise you haven't heard the last of me," Campbell vowed at his sentencing hearing.

Ultimately, Campbell's proclamation proved to be correct.

But it took a while. He resided in prison for years before his case came to the attention of the Innocence Project at the University of Illinois-Springfield and the Chicago law firm of Loevy & Loevy.

They filed a federal lawsuit arguing Campbell's conviction should be overturned because defense lawyer Welch mistakenly relied solely on the "too dark to see" defense and failed to locate and interview witnesses who said Campbell did not participate in the fatal beating.

U.S. Judge Harold Baker rejected that argument, holding Welch's trial strategy was reasonable.

But a unanimous federal appeals court found that Baker acted rashly in dismissing Campbell's appeal. It directed him to hold another hearing and determine to what extent Welch investigated the potentially exculpatory testimony provided by three witnesses.

Writing for the appeals court, Justice Diane Wood acknowledged that "this will be daunting challenge after so many years." But she concluded it was necessary because the case against Campbell was "far from overwhelming," the "omitted exculpatory testimony was relatively strong" and Welch's "unprofessional errors" had "undermined our confidence in the outcome of Campbell's trial."

One of the three witnesses, who acknowledged being under the influence of "crack" cocaine and alcohol, said she saw two men beating Shepherd, but that neither was Campbell.

A second said he saw the fight, called police and went outside to investigate. He said he saw a neighbor strike the victim, but not Campbell.

A third witness, a daughter of the second witness, said she heard the fight, called police and went outside. Once there, she said, she saw Campbell standing in her yard and spoke with him.

Noting that Welch had not spoken with any of the three witnesses and relied solely on the "too dark to see" defense, Judge Baker this time concluded that Campbell's conviction should be overturned.

"... there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, the outcome of Campbell's trial would have been different," he said.

After Baker's ruling Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz declined to retry the case. She said it was too old.

Campbell then was freed from prison and free to file his lawsuit against the city.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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