Jim Dey: Hellish Christmas killing back on court docket

 

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An inmate serving a 55-year sentence for a 1997 murder in Urbana, Teshome Campbell isn't scheduled to be released until 2025.

But, thanks to a recent federal appeals court decision, Campbell, now 38 and being held at the Danville Correctional Center, has a shot at getting out much sooner because his conviction in Champaign County Circuit Court is on the verge of being overturned.

The appeals court's action sets the stage for vindicating Campbell's defiant words when he was sentenced by now-retired Circuit Judge J.G. Townsend.

"I promise you haven't heard the last of me," he vowed.

But, first, the case must go back to the courtroom of U.S. Judge Harold Baker for an evidentiary hearing to determine what actions his defense lawyer, Urbana's Harvey Welch, did or did not take while preparing Campbell's defense.

"We recognize that this will be a daunting challenge so many years after the fact, but it is still necessary," wrote federal appeals court Justice Diane Wood in a recent opinion.

Wood was joined in her decision by fellow justices Illana Rovner and David Hamilton.

The attorney general's office is handling the appeal. A spokesman for the office said no court date has been scheduled.

Although the case was prosecuted in state court, Campbell's case is now in federal court because his lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus asking that Campbell's conviction be overturned because of ineffective assistance of his trial counsel.

Campbell's previous appeals were rejected in the state courts as well at the federal court in Urbana by Judge Baker before it was reviewed by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

Welch's trial performance has come under review because of his alleged failure to interview and/or call three witnesses who could have testified that Campbell was not involved in the stomping death of 44-year-old James Shepherd of Urbana. Campbell was among a large group of men who allegedly participated in the brutal episode.

At one point, 12 men were implicated in the case. Charges eventually were dismissed for want of evidence against five, while four pleaded guilty and were sentenced to probation or prison.

Only three defendants went to trial. One was acquitted. Another was convicted and sentenced to 45 years. The third was Campbell.

"Because the case against Campbell was far from overwhelming and the omitted exculpatory testimony relatively strong, (Welch's) unprofessional errors undermine our confidence in the outcome of Campbell's trial," Wood said.

The court's decision demonstrates how the appeals process can move in fits and starts, seemingly over one day and then be resurrected a decade later.

Shepherd's murder was both brutal and chaotic. Occurring about 2:30 a.m. on Christmas 1997 in the 200 block of East Bellefontaine Street in north Champaign, it involved a customer searching for crack cocaine (Shepherd) who allegedly bought phony crack from Campbell.

When Shepherd found out he'd been duped, he returned to demand his money back, whereupon he was attacked and viciously beaten by a group of men who were hanging out on the street and drinking beer. Shepherd died about a month later.

Cases like that are riven with problems for prosecutors because they inevitably involve witnesses whose credibility is compromised by their illegal activity, possible intoxication from drugs or alcohol and prior criminal records.

That was the case here. Two men charged ultimately became prosecution witnesses who testified under a grant of immunity.

The not guilty verdict a jury granted to one defendant — Bobby Joe White — demonstrates Campbell's case was beatable.

That's where Welch's pre-trial investigation and trial conduct has come under scrutiny.

Three potential witnesses — identified by police, but allegedly not interviewed by Welch — excluded Campbell as a participant in the beating.

Had they been called to testify, Campbell's lawyers argue, he stood a reasonable chance of winning an acquittal.

Wood said the testimony of two of the witnesses "would have completely contradicted the prosecution's version of the facts."

Previous courts have rejected the claim that Welch did not adequately represent his client, contending his decisions were routine tactical judgments lawyers make. However, the appeals court said that pre-trial investigation is a basic responsibility of a defense lawyer and Welch's alleged failure to talk to witnesses could be a serious error.

But what exactly did Welch do in his pre-trial investigation? The appeals court has instructed Judge Baker to conduct a hearing to determine how the defense lawyer handled the case. It noted Campbell's new lawyers submitted affidavits from the witnesses, but ordered the hearing so the state can scrutinize the veracity of their claims.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.