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East Peoria Times-Courier - East Peoria, IL
  • 200-year term for murder is 'murder' by judge, lawyer says

  • James Johnson of Peoria will die in prison for murdering an East Peoria man and leaving another with a bullet forever in his spine, a Tazewell County judge decided July 25.
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  • PEKIN — James Johnson of Peoria will die in prison for murdering an East Peoria man and leaving another with a bullet forever in his spine, a Tazewell County judge decided July 25. Anything beyond a minimum term, much less the total of 200 years Johnson received, will amount to murder itself, “one year at a time,” defense attorney Larry Smith said before Circuit Judge Kevin Galley passed sentence. “You're right about the math” that adds up to a life sentence, Galley told Smith. His murder allegation, however, was “the most preposterous thing I've heard in a court of law.” The combined sentences Galley gave Johnson for killing Justin Siebenthal and wounding Andrew Leathers “are devastating,” he told Johnson, 23, who showed no reaction. “That's the devastating consequence of the acts you committed in this case.” Much of the sentence stems from recently enacted state laws that add 25-year penalties for crimes that cause death or serious harm by firearms. Galley said he was bound by facts of the case to add the penalties, but he focused his comments on the night of sudden violence in June 2012 at Siebenthal's Richland Bottoms-area home. Johnson and Carlton Neely, 21, also of Peoria, planned to turn a marijuana purchase into an armed robbery. When Siebenthal struggled over the handgun Neely held and Neely shouted, “Get him, Snoop,” Johnson opened fire. One of several gunshots also struck Leathers as he ran toward the small home's back door. “A man in his own house,” Galley said, was “shot multiple times and left to die,” while another will live “an incomplete life” with a bullet that, according to Leathers' mother, will leave him with constant pain and fear he could be paralyzed merely by a slip or a fall. Johnson offered his “sincere condolences” to Siebenthal's and Leathers' families. Then, repeating his defense in his two-week jury trial in May, Johnson claimed Neely fired the shots. He was along merely to buy a small amount of marijuana from Siebenthal, he said. Citing that disavowal of responsibility, Galley gave Johnson a 15-year term for attempted armed robbery, along with 50 years for first-degree murder, another 30 for attempted murder and 30 more for home invasion. Three 25-year firearm violence additions brought the total sentence to 200 years. Neely, who pleaded guilty in the case and testified against Johnson in his trial, was sentenced last month to 40 years in prison, with no time reductions. Smith said Johnson should receive the same term as Neely. If Galley were to impose a sentence Johnson won't survive, he's saying, “I'm going to commit murder in front of all these witnesses” at the sentence hearing, “and I'm going to do it one year at a time.” The gun violence that Johnson and Neely brought to East Peoria is a sad reality of modern society, Smith said, “because people have weapons, and when they have weapons something's going to happen.” Prosecutors presented evidence in the hearing that, within an hour after their East Peoria crimes, Johnson and Neely shot and wounded a young man on a Peoria street in an apparent street gang reprisal. No charges have been filed in that case. When criminals kill or wound with firearms, the recently enacted firearms sentencing additions are an appropriate response, State's Attorney Stewart Umholtz said after the sentencing hearing. “I'm a strong advocate in citizens' rights to possess a firearm in self defense,” he said. “But when those firearms are used to commit a crime we should use the legislative tools available that carry harsh penalties.”
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