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Civil rights attorney Ben Crump joins calls for justice in Jelani Day case

Illinois State University graduate student Jelani Day went missing Aug. 24. His body was discovered Sept. 4 in Peru, Ill.
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Jelani Day

A prominent civil rights attorney says he’s now involved in the case of Jelani Day.

Ben Crump has figured in several high-profile cases in recent years. Crump represented the family of George Floyd, whose murder in 2020 by a former Minneapolis police officer set off a wave of social protests. Crump also represents the family of Ahmaud Arbery, the Black jogger chased down by three white men and shot. Last month, all three men were convicted in Georgia of murder.

Day was an Illinois State University graduate student who was reported missing Aug. 24 in Bloomington. His body was identified after being found Sept. 4 in the Illinois River near Peru in LaSalle County.

Day’s case remains under investigation by a multijurisdictional unit that includes departments from Bloomington, Peru, and LaSalle County. But his mother, Carmen Bolden Day, has long accused authorities of mishandling the case. She has made repeated calls for the FBI to take over the investigation.

During a news conference Friday morning, Crump echoed those calls, charging that authorities have failed to make Day’s case a priority. He accused investigators of trying to dismiss Day’s death as a suicide. Crump pointed to details of the case — such as Day’s car being discovered in a wooded area with its license plates removed — as evidence of foul play.

“When you add up all these facts…is it more likely that he committed suicide or is it more likely that this was a homicide?” Crump asked. “When you add up the facts (and) it doesn’t add up to suicide, then it adds up to homicide, and there is a killer out there on the loose.”

Bolden Day has repeatedly pushed back against theories that her son was experiencing mental distress. “I had a son who had his head on his shoulders, who was focused and determined to become a doctor,” she said, speaking at the news conference. “There was nothing in his life that would make him want to hurt himself.”

Bolden Day said she’s been told by authorities they found no evidence of trauma to Day’s body and nothing to indicate that didn’t enter the water on his own. “That says to me without saying to me that Jelani did this to himself,” she said.

Day’s death was ruled a drowning by LaSalle County coroner Rich Ploch. In an interview with WGLT, Ploch acknowledged the difficulty surrounding determining the exact cause of death. “Unfortunately, there is no specific test at autopsy for drowning,” Ploch said at the time. “Drowning is considered a diagnosis of exclusion with supporting investigation circumstances when a person is found deceased in a body of water,” he said.

“The manner in which Mr. Day went into the Illinois River is currently unknown,” Ploch added.

Crump said that’s one of many questions that should be left to the FBI to answer. “We want to know what was on his cell phone. We want to know what was his last call, what was the last ping. What was the last time he was seen,” he said.

Day’s cell phone, a potentially important piece of evidence, was reportedly found in mid-October by a man who stopped to retrieve something that had fallen off his truck. The unidentified man took the phone to Walmart and turned it in for cash. He was reportedly contacted days later by Bloomington police after the phone was identified as belonging to Day.

Bolden Day said she learned the phone had been found from a Facebook post written by an acquaintance of the man who found it. When she contacted BPD later that day, Bolden Day said a spokesperson confirmed the department was in possession of the phone.

She requested that it be sent to the FBI.

Sarah Nardi is a correspondent at WGLT. She rejoined the station in 2024.