PAXTON — A Paxton man pleaded innocent to second-degree murder Monday as his attorney indicated he would argue self-defense as justification for the fatal stabbing of another man outside a downtown bar.
Ford County Judge Steve Pacey ruled during Monday's preliminary hearing that probable cause existed to proceed with the prosecution of Sean F. Kelley, 33, in connection with the Oct. 17 stabbing death of Jeffrey D. Potts, 49, of Paxton.
Pacey set trial for January and a pretrial hearing for Dec. 17. Pacey advised Kelley that he would face a sentence ranging from probation to between four and 15 years in prison if convicted of second-degree murder, a Class 1 felony.
Meanwhile, Pacey agreed to reduce Kelley's $1 million bond to $250,000, after Kelley's attorney — Bruce Ratcliffe of Champaign — argued that Kelley does not present a flight risk and that the $1 million bond amount was "predicated on initial charges of first-degree murder."
Kelley, who has been at the Ford County Jail since Oct. 18, would need to pay $25,000 to be released.
State's Attorney Matt Fitton called one witness — Paxton police Officer Robert Yates — to testify during Monday's hearing.
Yates said he was the first officer to arrive at Shooky's Bar, 103 N. Market St., after police were dispatched there in response to the stabbing around 11:49 p.m. Oct. 17. Yates said that upon arrival he saw two men — later identified as Kelley and Mr. Potts — lying on the sidewalk in front of the bar. Yates said a person was kneeling over one of the men, and two others were standing nearby.
Yates testified that Derek Bristle, who was bartending that night, told him that Kelley stabbed Mr. Potts. Bristle told Yates he was inside the bar restocking in a rear room when he heard some noise, looked out and saw the men fighting outside the bar's front window.
Yates said Bristle told him that he ran outside, where he saw Mr. Potts on top of Kelley. Bristle said Kelley was performing a stabbing motion "upward" with his right hand, Yates testified.
Bristle said he pulled Mr. Potts off of Kelley, and Mr. Potts then told Bristle, "He stabbed me."
Mr. Potts' son, Brandon Potts, was at the bar when the stabbing occurred. Brandon Potts was interviewed briefly at the scene, Yates said, but was "frantic" and was "more concerned about his father than talking."
Later, police interviewed Brandon Potts again.
"All he said was Mr. Kelley stabbed his dad," Yates said.
Mr. Potts was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Yates said. Preliminary autopsy results show a single stab wound to the chest caused his death, Yates said, adding that the wound was through his left lung and into his heart.
Yates said a knife was found on the sidewalk.
Under questioning by defense attorney Ratcliffe, Yates testified that Kelley said at the scene "something to the effect of, 'I was protecting myself.'"
According to Yates, Brandon Potts said he and Kelley had been in a fight inside the bar earlier in the evening, but police were not called.
Ratcliffe argued that, based on the evidence presented, Fitton failed to establish probable cause to warrant a second-degree murder charge. Ratcliffe said Fitton failed to show Kelley's actions were with "unreasonable" justification; Ratcliffe added that lab results have yet to be received to show who was holding the knife.
However, in making his ruling that probable cause existed, Pacey noted that a claim of self-defense must be proven by the defendant, not the prosecution.