URBANA — A Champaign man sobbed on the witness stand Wednesday as he maintained that he never intended to kill a man who he said punched him without provocation.
A jury of seven women and five men, however, apparently did not believe Shoen Russell's claims that Darin Mitchell, 48, of Champaign, was the aggressor in a seconds-long scuffle that ended when Russell fired a single shot at Mr. Mitchell.
That shot fired into Mr. Mitchell's abdomen at 9:12 p.m. Aug. 23 outside the American Legion at 704 N. Hickory St., C, claimed his life the next day.
After about two hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Russell, 49, of first-degree murder, rejecting his claim that he was acting in self-defense.
Judge Roger Webber set sentencing for July 12. Russell faces penalties ranging from 45 to 85 years in prison.
Jurors had deliberated about 45 minutes when they asked Webber if they could see again the video taken outside the building that showed the lower portion of Russell and Mr. Mitchell's bodies seconds before the shooting.
The judge allowed the request and the jury viewed the several-seconds-long clip four more times in the courtroom.
Assistant State's Attorney Scott Larson had shown it repeatedly during the two-day trial.
Larson maintained that despite its poor camera angle and grainy nature, the video clearly showed Russell pushing Mr. Mitchell, then Mr. Mitchell punching Russell and Russell responding by immediately pulling a gun from his waistband and shooting Mr. Mitchell.
In closing arguments, Larson slowed down the video to emphasize that in an attempt to refute Russell's testimony that he was just standing near the front entrance of the Legion visiting with others when Mr. Mitchell punched him in the jaw for no apparent reason.
That version also conflicted with the testimony of three prosecution witnesses, who said Russell pushed Mr. Mitchell first, prompting Mr. Mitchell to punch Russell in the face.
Russell was on the stand in his own defense for just under an hour Wednesday morning.
Answering questions from his attorney, Steve Sarm of Champaign, Russell said he had not been drinking before he arrived at the "Backyard Boogie" celebration going on in the Legion parking lot. And he denied that he had gotten into any kind of altercation with Mr. Mitchell, a man he had known most of his life from growing up in Champaign together.
Prior to going into surgery to try to repair the damage done by the bullet, Mr. Mitchell told an ambulance attendant that Russell shot him and later told a detective the same thing, adding that Russell was "drunk, high" at the time.
Russell testified that he had "no idea why" Mr. Mitchell hit him but said the blow was so hard, he believed Mr. Mitchell had something in his hand. It knocked him backward several steps.
"When I looked up, he was on his way to me and I shot. I shot because I didn't know what he was going to do. I was scared," Russell said, an assertion he made at least 10 times in his hour of testimony.
"I was trying to shoot him in the leg. I wasn't trying to kill him," said Russell, who said he carries a gun for protection. As a convicted felon, he is not supposed to have a weapon.
"I didn't want to kill him. I just wanted to get him off me," Russell said, adding he feared Mr. Mitchell because Mr. Mitchell weighed more than he did and had been trained to fight in the military.
On cross-examination by Larson, Russell said he did not stay to render aid to Mr. Mitchell because he was scared: "I just left."
He admitted that he gave his gun to a friend that night and left the area for Iowa, where he was arrested in October.
"I needed to get my head right. I was scared. I didn't know what to do," he said of his reason for fleeing.
Larson argued it was because Russell knew he was guilty of a serious crime. Had he really been defending himself, Russell would have stayed and told police that, he argued.
Russell's self-defense claim did not fit the facts, Larson argued.
"If he is the aggressor, he doesn't get to claim self-defense. That's why he has to give you this story about Darin Mitchell being the aggressor for no reason at all," Larson said. "The only person with the right to defend himself was Darin Mitchell, and he did it the right way. He knocked him (Russell) back and then he backed away. Darin Mitchell was not a threat. Shoen Russell had no right to pull out that gun and certainly no right to pull that trigger."
But Sarm said Larson wasn't there and could not say what was going through Russell's mind.
"Those tears weren't fake. Those tears were because he did not intend for Darin to die," Sarm argued. "Shoen shot with the expectation he could stop the aggressive movement and get away, and that's what he did."