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Pair convicted in stomping death of veteran granted new trials

Published: Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013 10:57 a.m. CDT

DECATUR (MCT) — Two teens convicted of stomping to death 61-year-old Jerry Newingham in a brutal, random attack as the victim rode his bicycle on the near north side in 2009 have been granted a new trial by the appellate court.

Half-brothers Elliott T. Murphy, 20, and Deonta Johnson, 18, were both convicted by a jury in 2011 of first-degree murder and attempted murder and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Murphy received 80 years and Johnson for Murphy, 65 years.

They were identified as the leaders of a group of nine teens that attacked Newingham on Sawyer Street, near Monroe Street, shortly after school let out on Aug. 24, 2009. They then scattered and some of them regrouped and stomped on the head of 46-year-old Kevin S. Wilson at the Garfield Park pavilion about 70 minutes later. Wilson survived, but suffered debilitating injuries.

In separate rulings, the 4th District appellate court ruled that Murphy's case must be retried because of a conflict of interest his lawyer had, and Johnson's case was flawed because the judge who transferred him from juvenile to adult court did not take into consideration advantages of treatment within the juvenile justice system.

The Murphy case is headed for a retrial after the Illinois Supreme Court declined to review it. The Johnson case is awaiting possible review by the state's highest court.

If the court also rejects the Johnson case, prosecutors plan to try the defendants together, as they did in 2011, said First Assistant Macon County State's Attorney Nichole Kroncke.

The attacks on the innocent victims sent shock waves through the community because of the cold-hearted nature of the attacks, and lack of any effort to help the victims.

Four other teens pleaded guilty to various charges in the case and were sent to prison for terms ranging from three to 20 years.

Prosecutors and family members of the murder victim said they are disappointed by the appellate court's decision.

"It was a shock to me," said a son of the victim, Jason Newingham, 36. "I didn't expect the appeal to go through but it happened. It's hard to accept."

Newingham said he has been trying to forget the ordeal he underwent during the trial in which testimony of the gruesome murder was told and retold.

"Now we have to do it all over again," he said. "It's so unbelievable to me."

Murphy's convictions for first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder were reversed because of the defense counsel's "contemporaneous representation of defendant and a prosecution witness in an unrelated case," said the decision.

The three-judge panel explained that Shawn Stanley, then 19 years old, testified for the prosecution after he was represented by Randy Baker, an assistant public defender, in an unrelated criminal case. Baker was assigned to Stanley's case Dec. 2, 2009, and helped him negotiate a plea deal on April 15, 2010.

The court pointed out that during cross-examination in Murphy's trial, Baker brought out inconsistencies in Stanley's testimony between what he told the detective and what he had previously told a park ranger.

But the judges faulted Baker for not pointing out Stanley's prior felony convictions.

It was also mentioned that getting a better deal for Stanley at his plea hearing was contrary to Murphy's best interests because more felonies would have made him look worse. Stanley had pleaded guilty to two felonies in a routine plea deal and was sentenced to six years in prison.

Commenting on this aspect of the appellate court decision, Kroncke said she did not understand what difference any additional cross-examination would have made because Stanley was an uncooperative witness who repeatedly testified he did not remember anything. There was never any deal made for him to testify in order to help his own case. Stanley was an ineffective witness who had no influence on the outcome of the case. His videotaped interview with police contradicted his assertion that he didn't remember anything he might have seen.

Baker declined to comment on the decision because the case is ongoing.

Although all the three judges on the panel — Thomas R. Appleton, James A. Knecht and Robert J. Steigmann — agreed on the decision on the Murphy case, there was one dissenter in the Johnson case.

That younger defendant's trial was reversed because the juvenile judge who ordered Johnson, then 14, to adult court failed to consider his treatment advantages. Murphy had been transferred to adult court because he was older than 15, the automatic transfer age for first-degree murder.

Appleton and Knecht argued that Macon County Associate Judge Scott B. Diamond failed to consider every prescribed legal factor to support his decision to transfer Johnson. The judges also faulted the juvenile judge for not considering the difference in sentences he might receive.

"No evidence was presented as to what type of facilities, programs, or services were available within the Department of Juvenile Justice..." the decision said.

The dissenting judge, John W. Turner, argued that that issue was irrelevant because he would be incarcerated in the juvenile division of the Department of Corrections regardless. Johnson is currently housed in a juvenile prison facility.

Turner also noted that the court "was aware defendant could receive a lengthy prison sentence if convicted as an adult."

(c)2013 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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