URBANA — An Urbana man who admitted he fired a gun that killed another Urbana man more than a year ago is facing a prison term of between six and 30 years.
Jaki Pearson, 22, pleaded guilty Monday to aggravated battery with a firearm, heading off what could have been a weeklong jury trial on charges of first-degree murder.
He admitted that his actions on Sept. 1, 2017, claimed the life of Brandon Smith, 19, outside an apartment complex on North McKinley Avenue in Champaign.
Judge Tom Difanis accepted the plea and set sentencing for Jan. 3, when he will decide how many years behind bars Pearson should receive for what Assistant State’s Attorney Troy Lozar called a "tragic decision made while under the influence of alcohol and cannabis and while having a loaded gun."
Pearson, whose only prior adult conviction is for aggravated driving under the influence in 2016, will have to serve 85 percent of whatever sentence he receives.
"What happened is we have a young man who, of his own volition, decided he would take responsibility and control of his life," said Kevin Sanborn, the Bloomington attorney representing Pearson.
According to the facts Lozar shared with Difanis, Pearson and Mr. Smith were among a group of young men who were hanging out in and around a car in the 1200 block of Providence Circle about 12:40 a.m. on that Friday.
The group was drinking alcohol, smoking cannabis and talking when witnesses said Pearson began "tweaking," Lozar said, referring to a quick change in his temperament.
Pearson pointed the loaded gun at the car that the group was gathered around, which quickly broke up the gathering. Pearson and Mr. Smith, who knew each other, began walking back to the apartment of Mr. Smith’s sister, who lives in the complex.
Other witnesses who were headed for their cars heard an argument between the two men, then gunfire.
"They hear Brandon yell and turn and they start receiving fire and they run southeast out of the apartment complex," Lozar said.
Pearson, meanwhile, ran north and was not found that night. The next day, police found the gun used to kill Mr. Smith about a half-block away, tossed in a yard. Pearson turned himself in to police nine days later.
The men who ran southeast found Champaign police officers who were on another call a couple blocks away and reported the shooting to them.
Three officers arrived within moments and found a bleeding Mr. Smith on the ground. As they rendered first aid, Officer Tim Atteberry said he was able to learn from the dying Mr. Smith that it was Pearson who shot him.
Lozar said an autopsy revealed that Mr. Smith was shot once near the rib, with the bullet traveling upward to perforate his aorta. He died later at Carle Foundation Hospital.
Difanis ruled last week that the so-called "dying declaration" by Mr. Smith to Atteberry would be admitted as evidence at trial.
However, Difanis also agreed to admit evidence the defense wanted the jury to hear about Mr. Smith’s propensity for violence, which opened the door for a claim of self-defense by Pearson.
That included Mr. Smith’s 2016 conviction for aggravated unlawful use of weapons by a felon; three videos from his phone that showed him singing and waving guns; and Pearson’s knowledge of Mr. Smith’s reputation for being armed and violent.
Lozar said he declined to offer Pearson a plea deal for the less-serious charge of second-degree murder. But he was also dealing with occurrence witnesses who he said were "very reluctant to meet with and/or discuss the facts" with him as he prepared for trial.
Lozar said their statements to police had varied and because two of them wouldn’t talk with him, he wasn’t sure what to expect if they took the stand.
"I was not prepared to concede this was even a misunderstood self-defense case, so the more-serious charge of aggravated battery with a firearm was appropriate," Lozar said of the charge to which Pearson ultimately pleaded guilty.
Had jurors rejected Pearson’s claim of self-defense — there was no indication of a weapon other than Pearson’s being present — it’s possible they could have compromised and found him guilty of second-degree murder.
The penalties for that Class 1 felony range from probation to four to 20 years in prison but are served at only 50 percent time.
Lozar said he had discussed the plea with Mr. Smith’s mother and that she understood the reason for the offer.
Jaki Pearson pleaded guilty Monday to the fatal shooting of Brandon Smith, bringing a resolution to one of 11 murder cases in Champaign the past two years. Here's where the others stand:
DARIEN CARTER, 24, shot on June 2, 2017, on East Eureka Street.
— Convicted: Marquise Burnett, sentenced to 55 years in prison in March.
BETTY JO STOVER, 60, strangled on Dec. 29, 2017, at her home in the 1800 block of Sangamon Drive.
— Convicted: Son Richard, sentenced to 55 years in prison in June.
GUS EDWARDS, 53, shot on Aug. 3, 2017, near the corner of Beardsley and Elm.
— Charged: Jamonte Hill, 24, of Champaign.
TERRY MOORE JR., 30, shot on Aug. 20, 2017, in the 300 block of North Walnut Street.
— Charged: David Denson, 28, of Champaign.
MARTRELL JOHNSON, 28, shot on Nov. 25, 2017, at the Countrybrook Apartments on West Springfield Avenue.
— Charged: Travis Marshall, 30, of Champaign.
MICHEAL WHITE, 26, shot on March 7 in the 1300 block of Sunset Drive.
— Charged: Cornelius Freeman, 39, of Carbondale.
DARIN MITCHELL, 48, shot on Aug. 23 outside the American Legion at 708 N. Hickory St.
— Wanted: Shoen L. Russell, 48, of Champaign, on a murder warrant with a $5 million bond.
MONTREZ VONNER, 34, shot on March 11 in the 700 block of North Hickory Street.
RICKY GREEN, 18, shot on March 23 in the 100 block of Apricot Drive.
DAVID SANKEY, 16, shot on Aug. 28 in the 1800 block of Garden Hills Drive.