DANVILLE — After spending eight years and two months behind bars for the murder of a 20-year-old Danville man almost a decade ago, Lafayette Harper will soon walk free.
After deliberating less than two hours, a Vermilion County jury of seven women and five men on Thursday found the 35-year-old Danville man not guilty of first-degree murder in the Oct. 24, 2009, fatal shooting of Timothy Shutes Jr.
The verdict stunned many people in the courtroom, including Mr. Shutes’ loved ones, who attended every day of the trial.
"I think it’s bull," Mr. Shutes’ father, Tim, said softly, hanging his head as he walked out of the courtroom.
In the hallway, Mr. Shutes’ family members and friends wept and voiced their disbelief and disappointment with the verdict. One said that even though Harper was acquitted, it didn’t mean he was innocent of the crime.
Mr. Shutes’ sister Tiffanie said that regardless of the outcome, "Tim is still missed more than anyone can imagine." She said she hopes people remember him as someone "who would give you the shirt off his back. He was my best friend."
Back inside the courtroom, Vermilion County Public Defender Mike Mara, who represented Harper, hugged his client’s mother. Mara declined to comment on the outcome.
In September 2010, Harper’s cousin — Davieon Harper, now 37 — was convicted of murder and armed robbery in connection with the shooting. He has been serving a 30-year sentence at the Stateville Correctional Center, though a deal reached last year may cut that time short.
In October 2014, a jury also convicted Lafayette Harper in Mr. Shutes’ murder and found he personally fired the gun that caused the death. He was sentenced to 65 years in prison that December.
However, in July 2017, the Fourth District Appellate Court reversed the conviction, saying the trial court erred by allowing the jury to see the content of text messages sent to Lafayette Harper’s phone the night of the murder, "which contained inadmissible hearsay regarding the defendant’s rumored involvement" in the murder.
At his second trial, which started Monday, special prosecutors from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office presented testimony from 22 witnesses, including two eyewitnesses to the shooting — Davieon Harper and Randy Smalley, Mr. Shutes’ friend. They also presented physical evidence recovered during the investigation, including a sawed-off shotgun, a Ruger 9 mm pistol, a revolver, a Fashion Bug bag, a backpack, fingerprints and phone records for both Harpers’ phones on the night of the shooting.
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During her closing argument, Assistant Illinois Attorney General Haley Bookhout reminded the jury of the testimony of the two witnesses and of Ieca Smalley Trimble, Smalley’s sister and Mr. Shutes’ fiancee at the time, who went with the men to the east side of town.
"All told you essentially the same story," she said.
Smalley testified that he made a deal with a man named Buster — Davieon Harper’s nickname — to buy 10 pounds of marijuana for $3,500. Davieon Harper testified that the arrangement was for 5 pounds of marijuana, and that when he couldn’t come up with that amount, he and Lafayette Harper planned to set up the deal and rob the men of the money.
Smalley recalled driving with his sister and Mr. Shutes to the east side of the city and finding Daveion Harper waiting for them. Both he and Davieon Harper recalled going back and forth about him and Mr. Shutes getting in Davieon Harper’s car, and eventually they agreed and ended up at the park.
Both Smalley and Davieon Harper recalled the latter getting several calls and text messages. They also recalled sitting in car in the park when someone opened the back passenger door where Mr. Shutes was sitting, and Mr. Shutes getting shot.
A forensic pathologist testified that Mr. Shutes died of a shotgun wound to the head and that he was shot at close range.
Both Smalley and Davieon Harper identified Lafayette Harper as the shooter, although not until a few months later in Smalley’s case and several years later in Davieon Harper’s case.
Bookhout also reminded the jury how physical evidence and testimony from police, a fingerprint expert, a woman who lived near the park and a former classmate of the defendant corroborated their testimony.
It included a text message — "/n1" — from Davieon Harper’s phone to his cousin’s at 7:15 that night, which Davieon Harper said was a signal to let his cousin know where the money was in the car; and a 68-second call from Davieon Harper’s phone to his cousin’s. Davieon Harper testified that as part of the plan, he called his cousin on speakerphone so the men could hear a conversation about moving the location from a house to Elmwood Park.
It also included Lafayette Harper’s fingerprint, which was found on the back passenger door where Mr. Shutes was sitting; a black bag containing a sawed-off shotgun that Kathy Cunningham said she found in her flower bed a week after the shooting; testimony from Logan Vance, who said he gave his classmate Lafayette Harper shotgun shells prior to the shooting; and Mr. Shutes’ DNA on the shotgun.
Davieon Harper also testified that as he was getting ready to drive Mr. Shutes to the hospital, he saw a piece of flesh on his car seat and wiped it away with a towel. Bookhout said Danville police Officer Nicholas Moody testified that a light washcloth covered in brain tissue was among the items he observed at the scene of the shooting in the park.
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But Mara argued that the state’s two eyewitnesses weren’t credible or reliable.
"Their evidence comes from a liar and someone who is clearly mistaken," said Mara, whose sole witness — Aaron Benjamin, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois — testified about human memory; how it’s affected by stress, time and other information that’s taken in; and how it’s always changing, among other things.
While Smalley wasn’t there to lie, Mara said, he "appeared confused" while giving his testimony and would have been "clearly stressed" during the robbery and shooting. He added that Mr. Shutes was his friend.
"Randy wants somebody to be found guilty ... but Randy is mistaken in his identification," he said, reminding the jury that shortly after the shooting, he gave police a description of the shooter, including that he had a skinny build and was 6 feet, 4 or 5 inches tall, which doesn’t match Lafayette Harper’s build.
Mara reminded the jury that Benjamin said the earlier you access someone’s memory, the more accurate it’s likely to be. He also pointed out that it wasn’t until May 24, 2010, that Smalley saw a photo of Lafayette Harper and identified him as the shooter to police.
But "he had already seen a picture of Lafayette Harper," Mara said, referring to the photo lineup. "Dr. Benjamin told you as time goes by, source confusion is possible."
Mara also pointed out the inconsistencies in the two witnesses’ testimony, and that Davieon Harper lied to police on multiple occasions. He argued that he lied about his cousin’s involvement simply so he could cut a deal with prosecutors that would throw out his murder conviction and shave about 20 years off of his sentence.
"Davieon lies because it’s his strategy," Mara said.
During his testimony, Davieon Harper testified that he initially rejected a plea agreement for 10 years for armed robbery from the Vermilion County State’s Attorney’s Office, thinking a jury would see him as the accomplice and acquit him of murder. He later filed a post-conviction petition asking for his old deal back, which is pending.
Then, on April 6, he signed an agreement with current prosecutors that would let him plead guilty to armed robbery for a maximum sentence of 11 years and nine months (85 percent of which he is required to serve), in exchange for testifying against his cousin. Under the deal, he could be released as early as October.
"He never said anything about who the shooter was," Mara said. "He never said anything about Lafayette Harper. All of a sudden, he has all these details. He has this plan eight years after he was convicted ... and the state gave him a deal for it."