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Trial begins for Illinois guards accused of beating a prisoner so severely, he died

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Two prison guards in Illinois are standing trial on federal civil rights charges this week. They're accused of beating 65-year-old Larry Earvin so severely, he died. A third guard has already pleaded guilty. But there's evidence the pattern of abuse is much broader. Shannon Heffernan with member station WBEZ's Motive podcast reports.

SHANNON HEFFERNAN, BYLINE: In 2018, Larry Earvin was allegedly beaten by staff in a part of Western Illinois Correctional Center that is known for having no cameras. His autopsy showed almost half his ribs were fractured, and his cause of death was listed as homicide after a, quote, "altercation with staff." But in order to understand the broader implications of this trial, it's important to know what happened in the years before Earvin's death. WBEZ identified nine additional people who reported very similar stories to Earvin's - beatings, often in the same part of the prison, sometimes even by the same guards. One of those alleged victims is Roger Latimer. He says that in 2017, he was dragged down a sidewalk and taken to an area of the prison not under camera surveillance.

ROGER LATIMER: At that point, the officer on the left starts kicking me with his boots, over and over again. It was very terrifying. I thought I was - this is the way I die - is I get kicked to death.

HEFFERNAN: Latimer's medical records from an outside hospital indicate he had four rib fractures, bruises and a concussion. The nurse wrote in her records that she tried to take pictures of Latimer's injuries, but guards would not let her. She wrote that the patient said, quote, "They're just trying to cover this up. No one will know what they did to me if you don't take the pictures." When Latimer heard about Larry Earvin's death, he recalled all the ways he tried to report his experience - contacting prison officials and local prosecutors.

LATIMER: It was like, gee, it sounded like he was dragged down a sidewalk and kicked in the ribs. It's like - so this is still happening. It's so upsetting because I tried to reach out.

HEFFERNAN: The Illinois Department of Corrections would not answer a detailed list of questions about the blind spot where men report being beaten. Officials also would not answer questions about why no action was taken, despite documented reports of abuse. In a written statement, they said they installed more cameras since Earvin's death, but they insist footage should not be available to journalists or the public. Jenny Vollen-Katz is with the John Howard Association, a nonpartisan prison watchdog group, and says cameras are not enough. She argues that information of what happens behind prison walls needs to be available to people outside the corrections department.

JENNY VOLLEN-KATZ: When all of that information is only reported internally, we tend to see, you know, a lack of response, which is deeply concerning, but also unfortunately not unusual in a correctional environment.

HEFFERNAN: The trial that is underway is of two of the men accused of beating Earvin - Alex Banta and Todd Sheffler. A third, Willie Hedden, has already pleaded guilty. But the trial has raised issues about the system beyond those three guards. Several staff have already testified they saw co-workers beating Earvin and did nothing to stop it. Earvin's daughter-in-law, Toscia Pippion, was at the trial and says the problem is bigger than just the three men who've been charged.

TOSCIA PIPPION: Everybody should be held accountable for what they did. I don't care if you kicked him. I don't care if you pushed him. He needs to be held accountable for it.

HEFFERNAN: Neither of the guards on trial agreed to an interview. If the jury finds them guilty, they could face a sentence up to life in prison.

For NPR News, I'm Shannon Heffernan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon is a criminal justice reporter. She's also reported on mental health, poverty, labor and climate change.