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Judge Grants New Trial To Man Convicted Of Drug Charges

Earnest Bell
Illinois Department of Corrections
Earnest Bell is serving 22 years for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a church.

A Bloomington man who missed his trial on drug charges because he was involved in an apparent suicide attempt is entitled to a new trial, a judge has ruled.

Earnest Bell, 43, is serving 22 years for selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a church. He was convicted in a September 2015 bench trial after now-retired judge Robert Freitag found Bell mentally fit to stand trial.

But the Fourth District Appellate Court returned the case to McLean County for hearings on Bell’s claim that his lawyer failed to request a mental health evaluation. In the second of two rulings in Bell’s case, the appellate court directed the lower court to consider potential medication issues that may have played a role in Bell’s conduct on the day of his trial.

In his recent ruling, Judge Casey Costigan granted Bell a new trial, noting that Freitag and defense lawyer Brian McEldowney did not have Bell’s mental health and medication records at the start of the trial. Had the information been available “there is a reasonable probability a fitness exam would have been ordered and the trial delayed,” states the Feb. 25 ruling.

The Sept. 11, 2015, bench trial was briefly postponed when Bell refused to enter the courtroom. McEldowney reported his client “expressed that he was going to harm himself,” according to court records. The judge spoke with Bell from a hallway outside a holding cell adjacent to the courtroom where the defendant had wrapped a shirt around his neck.

The trial was held without Bell in attendance, after the judge, McEldowney and a prosecutor noted Bell’s cooperation at previous hearings.

At a hearing in December, Bell’s new lawyer, Philip Finegan, argued that Bell’s efforts to harm himself may have been linked to the Prozac he was prescribed just 22 days before the trial.  After Bell was returned to the jail, he continued to exhibit suicidal intentions, according to Finegan.

An April 8 hearing is set to determine the next step in Bell’s case.

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Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
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