DANVILLE — A man who was acquitted earlier this year in a 2009 drug-deal-turned-fatal shooting is suing the city of Danville and several current and former law-enforcement officers who were involved in the investigation.
The nine-count suit, filed this week by Lafayette Harper’s lawyers in U.S. District Court, Urbana, asks for “reasonable” compensatory damages “in an amount to be determined at trial,” punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and court costs.
The suit claims that investigators, as well as Danville police officers, fabricated evidence against Harper, failed to properly produce exculpatory evidence and initiated criminal proceedings without probable cause, causing him to be “wrongfully and unjustifiably” locked up for more than eight years.
In November 2010, Harper was charged with first-degree murder in the Oct. 24, 2009, fatal shooting of Timothy Shutes Jr. at Elmwood Park.
Nearly four years later, in October 2014, a jury convicted him of the murder and found he personally fired the gun that caused Shutes’ death. He was sentenced to 65 years in prison that December.
However, in June 2017, the state appellate court overturned the conviction, saying the trial court erred by allowing the jury to see a text message sent to Harper’s phone on that night that contained inadmissible hearsay regarding the defendant’s rumored involvement, and he was granted a new trial.
He was acquitted at his second trial, held in January, despite testimony from his cousin Davieon Harper that the two hatched a plan to set up a bogus deal to sell marijuana to Mr. Shutes and his friend Randall Smalley, and then rob them of the $3,500 they brought to pay for it.
Under the plan, Davieon Harper testified, he would drive the two men to the park; his cousin, who would be hiding in the park, would open the car door, grab the money and run; then he would act as though they were ambushed by an unknown assailant.
However, when the assailant tried to grab the bag with the money, Mr. Shutes struggled to hold onto the bag and was shot in the head with a shotgun.
Both Davieon Harper and Smalley identified Harper as the shooter, although not until a few months later in Smalley’s case and several years later in Davieon Harper’s case.
Among the suit’s claims:
— Police developed “a false hypothesis” that Lafayette Harper conspired with his cousin to steal Mr. Shutes’ money “and kill him if necessary.”
— Davieon Harper repeatedly stated he couldn’t identify the shooter, and police allowed his car to be destroyed before Lafayette Harper’s attorney could inspect it for exculpatory evidence.
— Lafayette Harper gave police “a detailed and verifiable” alibi for the night of the murder and an explanation as to why his fingerprint was found inside his cousin’s car, but both were “completely” disregarded.
— Police “orchestrated a deal with Davieon whereby he would falsely testify that (his cousin) was the shooter in exchange for leniency in Davieon’s sentence.”
In 2010, Davieon Harper was sentenced to 30 years in prison after he was convicted of murder and armed robbery, even though prosecutors thought his cousin was the shooter.
In March, however, that sentence was reduced to 11 years and nine months after he pleaded guilty to armed robbery-serious bodily harm as part of a new agreement he was given by special prosecutors from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office for testifying at his cousin’s trial.