Jim Dey: After a year, case may be close to resolution
Here are a couple of follow-ups from recent and not-so-recent stories.
It's been more than a year since a prominent Champaign resident was shot to death in a farm field near Mahomet.
Now it appears that 69-year-old Gerard W. James, who is charged with murder in the shooting of his unarmed cousin Harlan James, may go to trial on Oct. 29 and be found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz conceded that it is "most likely" that Gerard James will be found not guilty of the murder because he suffers from a serious mental illness that caused him to believe 80-year-old Harlan James posed a threat to his life.
Champaign psychiatrist Larry Jeckel has examined Gerard James at the request of defense lawyer James Martinkus. Rietz said Martinkus has indicated he intends to assert an insanity defense on James' behalf, and the case is scheduled for an Oct. 29 status hearing before Circuit Judge Heidi Ladd.
Rietz said that a couple preliminary issues need to be resolved, including James' fitness for trial, before the case can proceed. She said that if those issues are resolved, Ladd may conduct what is known as a "stipulated bench trial," a proceeding in which both the prosecution and defense present an agreed set of facts and the judge renders a verdict based on those facts.
In cases of this nature, the result is preordained because there is no dispute as to what the evidence shows. Rietz said her office is persuaded by Jeckel's finding that James was legally insane because of a mental illness in which he maintained a paranoid fear of his cousin.
Harlan James was a prominent Champaign-Urbana citizen, a retired area manager for AT&T, a prominent member of the much-celebrated Champaign High School Class of 1949 and an active participant in a variety of community causes. Born locally, he was active in service clubs as well as the United Way and the YMCA.
Harlan James was killed the day before he and his wife planned to leave to spend the winter in Florida.
The shooting occurred in mid-afternoon Oct. 7, 2011, in a most bizarre fashion.
Gerard James drove from Kansas to Champaign County twice a year to help his brother plant and harvest crops.
Gerard James, who is from the Lawrence, Kan., area, and Alan James were harvesting soybeans as Harlan James drove by. Harlan James was hauling brush he planned to burn in a nearby field but stopped to say hello to his cousins.
Unbeknownst to Harlan James, the two brothers, who were in separate vehicles, were heavily armed. Gerard James, who has a doctorate from Rice University, was armed with a 9 mm handgun while his brother, Alan, was carrying a shotgun and a handgun.
Alan James said he heard some shouting as Harlan James approached his brother's vehicle and then a gunshot. He said he found Harlan James dead in the field and Gerard James sitting in his truck.
In what investigators have described as a strange 911 call, the two men reported the shooting to the sheriff's office, waited for officers to arrive and then cooperated with them.
Afterward, Harlan James' wife reported that she was unaware of any problem between her husband and his two cousins while the cousins told investigators there was a long history of bad blood between themselves and Harlan James. The psychiatric reports indicates Gerard and Alan James had formed a mutual paranoid fear of Harlan James and believed he was planning to kill them.
Gerard James was taken into custody immediately by deputies, and he has been held since then in the county jail, where he is described as a model prisoner. If found insane, Gerard James would be transferred to a state hospital with his mental status, including the possibility of release, subject to periodic judicial review.
The proposed Amendment 49 to the Illinois Constitution has been a sleeper issue over most of the state, but it's attracted considerable attention in East Central Illinois as well as, on late Wednesday, a lawsuit.
Republican state Senate candidate John Bambenek is among 11 plaintiffs to file a lawsuit in Champaign County Circuit Court that asks the court to nullify the results of the Nov. 6 voting on the grounds that the amendment is so unclear as to be misleading, and, therefore, not a proper question to submit to voters.
"We shouldn't amend the constitution this way," said Bambenek, who is challenging Democratic state Sen. Mike Frerichs in the 52nd District.
The lawsuit has been assigned to Associate Judge Chase Leonhard, but a hearing date has not been set. Thomasboro lawyer Mark Hewitt, who is handling the case for Bambenek, said he expects the case to move fast.
"With election issues, there is a pretty quick turnaround," Hewitt said.
It's too late to remove the public-pension-related question from the ballot. The lawsuit seeks a court order that the results of the vote on Amendment 49 not be certified, essentially meaning that they be ignored because the ballot question is legally insufficient. However, even that issue would be moot if the amendment is rejected by voters.
The amendment purports to ask voters if they wish to require a super-majority of a three-fifths vote, rather than a simple majority, for members of the Legislature and local bodies, including city councils and school boards, to approve a pension increase for employees.
However, the amendment's considerable length — more than 700 words — and its sometimes impenetrable language have raised a number of questions, one of which is whether the voters will understand what they are voting on.
The amendment itself is not printed on the ballot, replaced by a one-paragraph explanation.
The ballot explanation states: "The new section would require a three-fifths majority vote of each chamber of the General Assembly, or the governing body of a unit of local government, school district, or pension, or retirement system, in order to increase a benefit under any public pension or retirement system."
One of the lawsuit's claims is that "the proposed amendment itself clocks in at around 3,700 characters contained in five paragraphs. As a comparison, the entire Illinois Bill of Rights is approximately 7,200. ... All of that is boiled down to one sentence on the ballot. This explanation ... is far from sufficient to explain the text of the amendment."
Among the local residents named as plaintiffs are Bambenek and Emily Brown, both of Champaign; Larry Kearns and Leo Studer, both of Tolono; and Karen and John Reitmeier Jr., both of St. Joseph.
In addition to the debate over the legal propriety of the proposed amendment, there also is suspicion about the amendment's real intent.
University of Illinois Professor John Kindt suggests that its language can be interpreted by the courts to repeal the state constitution's guarantee that public employee pensions once earned cannot be reduced.
Kindt's much-disputed interpretation focuses on the final paragraph that was added to the amendment in the final stages of the legislative process.
"Nothing in this section shall prevent the passage or adoption of any law, ordinance, resolution, rule, policy or practice that further restricts the ability to provide a 'benefit increase,' 'emolument increase,' or 'beneficial determination' as those terms are used under this section," states the final paragraph.
Steve Brown, a spokesman for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, dismissed the notion of any hidden meaning in the paragraph. He said it was added to reassure local government officials that the amendment did not limit their ability to approve pay increases.
Various observers may have their own views of what the language means, but the final interpretation of the amendment's meaning is a matter for the courts to resolve.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 351-5369.