JIm Dey: Farm killing case goes in new direction

When a Kansas man recently was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity in connection with the shooting of his cousin, it brought the criminal case to a close. But the verdict has opened the way for movement in a civil lawsuit filed by the wife and estate of the late Harlan James, a prominent Champaign businessman and civic leader, against the man who killed him.

The lawsuit against 69-year-old Gerard James was filed in June by Champaign lawyer David Bailie. But it was put on hold while the criminal case played out.

Now lawyers for the Harlan James estate and Gerard James — Bailie and Champaign lawyer Jim Martinkus — are moving forward in the civil case, which is before Circuit Judge Michael Jones.

The civil litigation is one more twist in a strange case that was driven, court records show, by the paranoid fear of Gerard James and his brother, Alan James, that their cousin Harlan James, among others, was trying to steal their farmland.

Now, because Gerard James killed Harlan James, the Harlan James estate is seeking a court order that Gerard James pay financial damages.

The lawsuit did not indicate how much in damages the Harlan James estate is seeking, merely requesting that it "substantially exceed the minimum jurisdictional amount."

The fatal shooting occurred in a farm field near Mahomet in October 2011, when Harlan James stopped to visit with Gerard and Alan James as they were harvesting crops. Harlan James, who planned to go to Florida for the winter with his wife the next day, was in the area because he was dumping yard waste on nearby property that he owned.

When Harlan James, who was unarmed, approached, Gerard James pulled out a gun and shot him in the chest. Police reports indicated that both James brothers, in anticipation of an attack, were heavily armed. After the shooting, Alan James called the sheriff's office to report that the well-known "desperado" Harlan James was dead.

Gerard James, who holds a doctoral degree, was taken into custody and held in the Champaign County jail until his trial. After his acquittal, he was scheduled to be evaluated by state psychiatrists. A Dec. 20 court hearing before Circuit Judge Heidi Ladd, who presided over the criminal case, has been set to consider the results of the state examination and decide how to proceed.

Gerard James' insanity verdict was based on a lengthy examination of both Gerard and Alan James by psychiatrist Lawrence Jeckel. He diagnosed the brothers' paranoid fears of their cousin, as well as others, as a Shared Psychotic Disorder.

Gerard and Alan James apparently believed that Harlan James, a longtime area manager for Illinois Bell before his retirement, was a mass murderer and that he and others tortured and killed people to obtain their farmland. The James brothers concluded they were on Harlan James' hit list and armed themselves for protection.

A resident of Lawrence, Kan., Gerard James visited Champaign County twice a year, the spring and fall to help his brother with planting and harvesting crops.

The lawsuit filed by the James estate alleges that Gerard James engaged in both negligent conduct and willful and wanton misconduct in the shooting. Lawyer Martinkus has challenged the "willful and wanton" claim, asserting legal insanity as a defense. Bailie has responded that "insanity is not a defense to a wrongful death action or civil liability."

As a practical matter, this case is liable to end up as a skirmish over how much in damages Gerard James will pay. There's no legal dispute about what happened — that Gerard James unlawfully killed his cousin — so the real question ultimately will be how much he will have to pay. If Gerard James does not have substantial liquid assets, the farmland he feared would be stolen from him could come into play.

Jim's Pseudo-Intellectual Book Club — Christmas gift recommendations

In just 25 days, you'll have to have a suitable gift available for family members, friends and others to whom you feel morally obligated to give. So this pseudo-intellectual is going to try to lighten your load by making a few modest suggestions for the readers in your life.

These are my best recommendations, but I make no guarantees — remember, I am but a humble pseudo-intellectual.

Broken down by category, some are less serious works on less serious subjects. Others are weighty tomes for those who really enjoy history and biography.

Sports

Since sports — college and pro — receive attention way out of proportion to their real importance, let's start there. Two books on football top my list.

"Blood, Sweat and Chalk. The Ultimate Football Playbook: How the Great Coaches Built Today's Game" by Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden. Give the would-be football coach in your life a readable explanation of the formation of various offenses and defenses, how they evolved and who created them. It may sound dull, but Layden succeeds in humanizing X's and O's in a way any sports fan can enjoy.

"America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured A Nation"by Michael MacCambridge is another fascinating page turner that tells the story of the creation and rise of professional football as America's most popular sport. It's a highly readable account of the game's growth told through the people who built it.

Biographies

There are so many great books to suggest, but space limits me.

My all-time favorite biography is "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" by Edmund Morris. It's just a phenomenal book about a fascinating person.

A more recent outstanding work is"The Passage of Power" by Robert Caro. It's Caro's latest work in a biographical series on former President Lyndon Johnson. "Passage" concerns Johnson's unsuccessful campaigns for president in 1956 and 1960, his decision to run as John Kennedy's vice presidential candidate in 1960, his miserable vice presidential years and Kennedy's assassination. Johnson is a fascinating character — huge strengths and equally huge weaknesses.

I haven't yet read "The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy" by David Nasaw. But the reviews have been generous, and Old Joe was the most interesting of all the Kennedys.

History

One of the best narrative histories of this country that I've read is David Kennedy's "Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945." It's beautifully written and so informative about these two crucial chapters in the life of this country.

Detective fiction

Michael Connelly has just published "The Black Box," his latest contribution to his Harry Bosch detective series. He also writes the Mickey Haller series about a Los Angeles defense lawyer. Both have stood the test of time for those who like their violent crime on paper instead of in real life.

Comedy fiction

You can't beat the "Flashman" series by George MacDonald Fraser. The author created a fictional British military officer, Harry Flashman, who's both a coward and a cad and transplants him into real life history. From the Crimean War to Custer's Last Stand, Flashman makes his shivering presence felt. Great stuff — but almost exclusively for men. Exposure to Flashman's low character will give most decent women a serious case of the vapors. Men, of course, will see a role model.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com.

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