A Peoria County grand jury indicted one young man after the death of his friend but declines to indict in another case. We'll never know exactly why.
Two young men die at the hands of friends.
Both deaths stem from recklessness, authorities say. Both cases go before the same Peoria County grand jury.
One ends in an indictment. The other does not.
We’ll never know exactly why. Grand juries meet behind closed doors, hearing evidence from prosecutors.
Afterward, jurors vote secretly whether to hand up an indictment.
But I talked to some people. This is what I know:
The first case involved Bradley University student Robert Hurt, 21, of Pontiac, who was fatally struck by a car on University Street near campus in the wee hours of March 9.
Earlier, Hurt had been drinking with friends, including long-time pal Brandon Gish, 19, of Plainfield, a student at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. With five others, the two walked on the sidewalk along University Street.
Gish and Hurt engaged in what police called "horseplay." Initial reports alleged Gish shoved Hurt into the street, just as a car happened to come by.
Police booked Gish on a charge of involuntary manslaughter, a Class 3 felony punishable by up to five years in prison. But, after the Peoria County State’s Attorney’s Office reviewed the case, the charge was changed to reckless conduct, a Class 4 felony punishable by upwards of three years in prison.
Still, any felony is serious business. But this week, the grand jury didn’t buy it.
Turns out, the ongoing investigation shows that Gish didn’t push Hurt into traffic. Rather, the two were grabbing one another and getting into each other’s faces, pretending to be pro wrestlers. Between the sidewalk and curb, they started pulling on one another’s arms. As Hurt pulled on Gish’s arm, Hurt lost his grip. He stumbled backwards, tripped and tumbled into traffic -- right in front of a car.
The "reckless" part of reckless conduct is legally defined as "willful and wanton disregard for another." That’s hard to prove on the part of Gish. Grand jurors thought the young men at worst had been negligent: They did something stupid that turned out bad.
In the end, the grand jury found the death not criminal, just accidental. So, they took a pass on the indictment. That’s noteworthy. Grand jurors typically oblige prosecutors. But here they said no.
Meanwhile this week, the same grand jury heard the case of Michael Howard, 18. On March 12 inside his home, he allegedly pointed a gun at the head of his friend, Howard Scott Jr., 18.
Howard allegedly squeezed the trigger, shooting Scott in the head. Scott staggered outside and fell to the ground. He died later.
Prosecutors sought two counts against Howard: involuntary manslaughter, the same Class 3 felony as originally charged to Gish; and aggravated battery with a firearm, the latter a Class X felony with mandatory prison time of six to 30 years.
This week, the grand jury issued indictments on both of those charges.
The first charge alleges that death was caused by recklessness -- in this case, in the way Howard handled the gun. The second charge simply alleges he knowingly pulled the trigger and shot Scott.
Howard told police he didn’t mean to hurt his pal, because he did not know the gun was loaded. The second part is hard to swallow. Sources say Howard had been in possession of the eight-shot revolver long before the shooting. Plus, the weapon had been loaded with three bullets -- easily viewable in a revolver.
Moreover, it’s hard to find anyone -- let alone grand jurors -- who will look the other way when you point a gun at someone’s head and pull the trigger. Even if you think it’s horseplay, it’s too risky.
And grand jurors couldn’t shrug that off as an accident.
Phil Luciano is a columnist with the Journal Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (309) 686-3155 or (800) 225-5757, Ext. 3155.