State's attorney argues that alleged teen killer should be tried as an adult

Sep. 21—URBANA — A Champaign County judge will rule early next month on a request by the state to prosecute as an adult a 15-year-old accused of murdering his own friend so he could have the friend's gun.

The youth has been charged in juvenile court with the first-degree murder of Montrell Emery, 16, who was shot in the back of the head in a hallway at an Urbana apartment complex on March 15.

After hearing more than two hours worth of testimony Thursday surrounding the investigation into Mr. Emery's death, Judge Anna Benjamin said she wanted to review the evidence before making her decision. She set a hearing for Oct. 2 to deliver her ruling.

The youth was 14 at the time Mr. Emery was killed and turned 15 four months later. Had he been 15 at the time of the death, then his case would have been automatically prosecuted in adult court, where the penalties are much higher than those in the juvenile justice system.

Another 15-year-old Urbana boy who was present when the killing happened has pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a Glock handgun believed to be the murder weapon. He is set to be sentenced Oct. 3.

Urbana police Detective Kenneth Sprague testified that police also believe a third male was in the hallway at 2404 Prairie Green when Mr. Emery was shot from behind. He has been interviewed but not charged.

Under questioning by State's Attorney Julia Rietz, and witnessed by 20 family members of both Mr. Emery and the detained teen, Sprague laid out the state's case.

Among the statutory requirements Benjamin has to consider are the seriousness of the crime and the youth's criminal history.

She took note of his single prior adjudication for attempted armed robbery.

Rietz said that on Oct. 8, 2022, just five months before Mr. Emery's murder, the youth put a loaded gun to the head of another minor on East Florida Avenue in Urbana and demanded his phone. Since it was his first conviction and he was 14, the teen was given 30 months of probation.

On the Wednesday Mr. Emery was killed, Sprague said police were called to Prairie Green about 1 a.m. on that Wednesday. Mr. Emery was in front of a hallway door by the parking lot and his right pants pocket was inside out as if someone had pulled something from it.

He was shot in the back of the head and his cellphone and two shell casings were found near his body. An unspent shell was found just outside the door. There was bullet damage to a door jamb.

Following up on information from neighbors about a possible suspect vehicle, Sprague said police located a woman and her brother who had dropped Mr. Emery and three friends off at the complex, then returned later to pick them up.

The teen in the waiting car told police he had been with the others earlier and heard the alleged killer tell the group that he planned to steal Mr. Emery's gun that day.

The gun had a unique gold barrel, a green laser light, flashlight and a see-through magazine, Sprague said.

The teen said he believed his friend planned to beat Mr. Emery up and take his gun. He knew that the two other teens with the accused shooter had a "ghost Glock" handgun with no serial number that they shared.

The youth and his sister both told police that while in the car waiting for the boys, they heard two gunshots then saw only three friends run to the car. The teen eventually charged with murder was the last to come out and get in the car.

They instructed the female driver to drop them at the home of one of them, which she did.

On that ride, none of them spoke of what had happened inside Prairie Green, Sprague said.

Sprague said a later search of that woman's car turned up a gun magazine that would have fit both the ghost Glock and Mr. Emery's gun.

Police later recovered Mr. Emery's gun wrapped in the accused killer's clothing at his brother's Urbana apartment, but they have never recovered the ghost Glock believed to have been used to kill Mr. Emery.

Further investigation into the cellphones of those present led police to a series of videos that the alleged killer had made months prior to Mr. Emery's death. In the videos, he rapped about shooting while displaying at least five different guns.

Eight hours after the fatal shooting, the alleged killer and another teen were sharing videos of the group holding guns, Sprague said. The alleged killer also told his friend to throw his clothes away and turn off his phone and obtain a different one.

Sprague prepared what he called a sample of the many videos he found of the alleged killer displaying the guns.

"We wouldn't have time to watch them all," he said, before describing for the judge what was in 20 different videos between Dec. 14, 2022, and the morning of March 16, 2023.

Of those, at least six were produced after Mr. Emery's killing and showed the alleged killer both inside apartments and out in public, smoking cannabis and displaying loaded handguns, including the gun believed to have belonged to Mr. Emery.

On the final video the judge viewed, the alleged killer was with a girl and pointed the laser at her head, telling her to do what he instructed or that he would shoot her.

On cross-examination by the youth's attorney, Sprague said the boy denied shooting Mr. Emery and blamed one of the other youths present.

Arguing for the transfer to adult court, Rietz said there was plenty of evidence to support that the youth she had charged with murder was correctly charged and that the others who were present were not responsible for Mr. Emery's killing.

She urged Benjamin to consider the seriousness of the offense.

"This was committed in such a brutal manner ... a shockingly horrific way to shoot a friend in the back of the head to steal his gun. It's numbing, mind-blowing," she said, calling his actions "aggressive and premeditated" and unprovoked by Mr. Emery.

She argued that the youth "glorifies" weapons and reminded the judge of his prior adjudication for a gun crime and the opportunities he was offered in the juvenile justice system before his arrest for Mr. Emery's murder.

Rietz derisively mocked a psychological evaluation done on the youth that suggested that he was no danger to himself or others. She also said a District 116 official's letter of support for the youth that stated "all children make mistakes" was off base.

"This is not a mistake. This is a murder. He shot him in the back of the head," Rietz said, calling the youth "the instigator of the plan to take the gun."

The youth's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Katie Jessup, urged the judge to consider that one of the other youths present at Prairie Green could have been the shooter. And she said the psychologist had also reviewed police reports about the killing in arriving at his conclusions about the youth.

The Department of Juvenile Justice, Jessup said, was more tailored to deal with the issues of minors and that by statute, if her client were convicted he would have to be held five years, which would give him time for counseling and schooling.