McLean County prosecutors call it an unprecedented time in their office.
They have tried 10 murder defendants in less than two years. The last nine defendants were convicted. McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp said he hopes the convictions have a chilling effect on crime in Bloomington-Normal.
“If people haven’t figured out what happens to folks that want to use violence and usually illegal guns to settle disputes, I don’t know how much plainer we can make it,” Knapp said.
In the two most recent cases, Hammet Brown was convicted Monday of first-degree murder in a double homicide stemming from a June 2018 party in Bloomington. Earlier this month, a judge found Sydney Mays guilty in a 2018 triple homicide in Bloomington.
Knapp called a news conference Tuesday and assembled his prosecutors who tried those cases and local police who investigated the cases to detail how they have managed the multitude of high-profile murders.
Assistant State's Attorney Jeff Horve prosecuted the case in which Cynthia Baker was convicted of killing 8-year-old Rica Rountree in 2019. Horve said the office has been busy, but staff morale has never been higher.
“They are all going extra work so we can do what we need to do as far as putting in the time and effort for these major homicide cases that have been at an unprecedented rate these last two years,” Horve said. “Frankly, it’s tiring at times, but at the end of the day when you get that verdict and you get a hug from a mother or father whose child was killed, morale can’t be any higher because there’s nothing more important than that."
Knapp noted McLean County has seen an increase in murder trials. There were 11 from 2000 to 2009, 15 in the last decade and seven already since the start of 2020. Two more murder defendants are scheduled to stand trial later this year.
Knapp said most of the recent trials stem from killings that happened in 2018. He said while the number of murders has dropped since then, hybrid gangs remain a problem.
Knapp said it's heartbreaking to find pictures of young people flashing guns on social media after a serious crime.
“We think to ourselves, my word, if we had just had these photos before all this happened, either got the kids some help or showed them it wasn’t the way or maybe locked them up for a year or two, we’ve had somebody who was alive and this kid’s life wouldn’t be over for pulling the trigger on that gun and going to jail for the rest of his life,” Knapp said.
Investigating social media played a role in the Mays conviction.
Bloomington Police Sgt. Tim Power, the lead investigator in the case, said investigators were able to access several Facebook and Snapchat accounts to identify people connected to the case.
“It can get complicated, but when you are able to put those things together it does help,” Power said.
Knapp said he hopes the arrests and convictions get more dangerous people off the streets, but said police are still tracking dozens of people in McLean County who have had multiple convictions for gun offenses.
He said that’s where it takes collaboration among police agencies and the public to help get illegal guns off the street.
“What we’d really rather have happen is that people lay their guns down and settle these disputes in conversation or some other method as opposed to taking shots at each other,” said Bloomington interim police chief Greg Scott.
Knapp also said investigative work police to solve these murder cases shows why their work is so critical and their funding should not be directed elsewhere as advocates of the Defund the Police movement want to see.
“Do we really need 100 officers for one officer to do three violent offense calls in a calendar year? My answer to that is hell, yes,” Knapp said.
Scott said less than 1% of Bloomington Police’s calls were considered mental health calls, where he said an armed officer may not be necessary to respond.
The last murder defendant in McLean County who was found not guilty was Kirk Zimmerman in May 2019.
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