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Brian Beals

Other Cook County, Illinois homicide exonerations
At about 3:20 p.m. on November 16, 1988, 6-year-old Demetrius Campbell was shot in the front of his throat in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois. His mother, 27-year-old Valerie Campbell, was shot in the rear of her left thigh. Demetrius died an hour later at an area hospital.

Just before the shooting, according to police reports, Campbell, Demetrius, and her two older sons had been walking down the street with her boyfriend, Derrik Lewis, when they happened upon two men arguing. Lewis apparently knew both men and tried to intervene. Campbell and her children kept walking. Lewis got in the car with one of the men, and then, quickly, shots rang out.

In the initial accounts of the shooting, the police said Lewis’s car was headed west on West 60th Street.

Campbell said she picked up Demetrius and began to run. After realizing that she and Demetrius had been shot, the family ran several blocks west, along West 60th Street, until they came to Pandora Scott’s house.

When interviewed by the police, Campbell said she “observed unknown males on the street a few feet away who were involved in a heavy argument,” according to notes from a police officer in Demetrius’s autopsy report.

Later, according to a police report, Campbell told the police that the “fat man” from the argument was the shooter. The police also said that Lewis told officers that the “fat man” was 22-year-old Brian Beals.

At the time, Beals was a senior at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, eying a career in law enforcement. He was also a member of the football team, standing 6 feet tall and weighing about 300 pounds. The man Beals argued with was Stevie Johnson.

Police took Beals into custody a short while later at his family’s home, which was around the corner from the site of the shooting. Lewis and Johnson were also brought in for questioning, and the hands of all three men were tested for gunshot residue. In addition, the police examined and took photographs of a maroon Impala that Beals was driving at the time of the shooting. The car belonged to his friend, Ron Allen. Later that day, Beals was charged with murder, aggravated battery, and several weapons charges.

Beals’s trial in Cook County Circuit Court began in January 1990. He was represented by Earl Washington. By the time of the trial, the FBI had completed its testing for gunshot residue and found no evidence of residue on Beals’s hands. “It could not be determined if Beals discharged a firearm,” the FBI report said.

Campbell testified that she, Lewis, and her children were walking on West 60th Street when Lewis tried to intercede in an argument in front of a house. She said that Lewis then got in a blue Camaro with one of the men, and they drove east. (This was different from the initial police accounts of the shooting.)

Campbell said that she and her three boys continued walking west when the other person from the argument—the “fat man”—drove up behind them and pointed a gun out of the driver’s side window. She and her sons began running. Campbell said she heard a “pow” and saw Demetrius fall to the ground. She said she heard another shot and felt a pinch in her left leg.

Campbell said she and her children ran and hid near a front porch. Quickly, the fat man drove up and got out of his car. She said he walked around looking for them for two to three minutes before getting back in the car and driving away.

Although Campbell testified that a detective brought Johnson to her hospital room for what amounted to a show-up identification, she did not make any identification of Beals until the trial, when she identified him from the witness stand.

Antonio Campbell, who was 7 years old at the time of the shooting, testified that a “fat man” drove by the family as they were walking near West 60th and Normal Boulevard. He said the man shot at them out the driver’s side window using his left hand. Like his mother, Antonio testified that the family hid near a house, but he said the “fat man” did not get out of his car to look for them. He said the man just stayed in his car looking out the window for a few minutes before driving off. Antonio was not asked and did not make an in-court identification of Beals. However, Antonio testified that when the police took him to a house where he saw Beals being arrested, he said, “That’s him.”

Johnson testified that on the afternoon of the shooting, he went to an apartment building on West 60th Street and talked to the landlady, CC Tyler. He testified that he told Tyler that she shouldn’t allow Beals to live in the building because Beals sold drugs. He said he told Tyler that Beals had “a lot of enemies” and if she rented a room to Beals, “more stuff was going to start back up.”

Johnson said that Beals showed up and said he could sell drugs wherever he wanted. As they argued on the sidewalk, Campbell, her children, and Lewis walked past. Johnson said Lewis told him and Beals to stop fighting. Then, Johnson said, he and Lewis got into Johnson’s Camaro and drove away, eastbound. They heard the shots but didn’t see who fired them.

Washington moved to introduce evidence that Johnson was a “major drug dealer,” but Judge Themis Karnezis denied his motion.

Johnson testified that later, outside Pandora Scott’s house, Campbell said the “fat man” had shot them. Johnson testified that he remembered telling Campbell that Beals didn’t seem like that kind of person. He also testified that the police questioned him on the night of the shooting and threatened to “beat the hell out of me.”

Lewis testified that he heard the gunshots as he drove off in Johnson’s car. He said he and Johnson found Campbell at Scott’s house, and a police officer later asked if he knew where the “fat man” mentioned by Campbell lived. Lewis got in a police vehicle and directed the officers to Beals’s house.

Officer Michael Wilson, a gang unit officer, testified that while he was at Scott’s house, he heard either Antonio or his older brother, Cordell, say that the “fat man” had shot them. Wilson never prepared a report, but he testified that Campbell did not mention anything about hiding from the “fat man” as he got out of his car to search for her and her family.

Detective Thomas Ptak led the investigation. He testified that Antonio mistakenly identified a red car near the scene of the shooting as belonging to the shooter. Later, he testified, after the boys saw Brian Beals being arrested, he took the children to a house on West 63rd Street, where Mark Terrell, a friend of Beals’s, lived. He said that the boys identified a different car, the maroon Impala that Beals had been driving, as the shooter’s car.

Ptak testified that Campbell described how the shooter got partially out of his car to shoot at her and her children and later searched for them as they hid near a porch. None of this information was in Ptak’s reports. He said the omission was an oversight. “I’ve committed an error, sir,” he said.

Ptak said Johnson refused to tell him what he and Beals argued about. Beals, Ptak said, told the police it was about drugs.

Norman Yancy and his girlfriend, Karen Shaw, lived next door to Tyler. They testified for the defense. Yancy said he saw two men across the street, and that one of the men fired a gun in the direction Campbell was walking. After the shooting, Yancy said a black or blue sports car picked up the shooter. On cross-examination, Yancy testified that he never described the driver of the getaway car to defense counsel as 6 feet 5 inches tall, light-skinned, and 20 to 30 years old, a description that roughly fit Beals.

Shaw only heard the shooting, and then looked out the window and saw two men across the street. She also said that one of the men got into a dark blue sports car.

Sidney Cobb said he was with Beals in Beals’s apartment when Johnson showed up. He said that Beals later came upstairs and said he had to leave because something was about to go down. He said Beals grabbed his Adidas jacket and left. (Johnson said that Beals was already wearing the jacket during their argument.) Cobb said Beals did not have a weapon, and he watched Beals drive off in the Impala. Cobb said he saw someone fire six shots in Beals’s direction. Cobb said he saw Johnson’s Camaro, which was also pointed westbound.

Beals’s older sister, Pattilyn Beals, testified that she was present when Johnson told Washington about the police threats. Pattilyn testified that Johnson told Washington that the police kept saying “they didn’t have anything” on Brian and “tried to have him make Brian have a gun.”

Brian Beals testified he was arguing with Johnson because Johnson wanted to sell drugs in the area. He said that after the argument, he felt threatened and went upstairs to get his jacket and keys. When he got outside, he saw Johnson’s blue Camaro down the street and two men, one with a gun, running toward him. Beals said he jumped in the Impala and sped off. He testified that he saw someone fire five or six shots from a nearby alley. He also said he saw the Campbells running but did not realize they had been hit.

Beals said he drove to Terrell’s house and parked the car there, then asked Terrell to drive him to his house to check on his family. After his arrest, Beals testified, the police said he had tried to shoot Johnson but shot Valerie and Demetrius by mistake. Beals said he told the police that he was unarmed and that he had seen two people shooting at him.

After Washington presented the defense case, Ptak testified as a rebuttal witness. He said that because the gunshot residue test performed on Beals, Johnson, and Lewis occurred about three hours after the shooting—the outer limits for effective testing—the results were “very inconclusive.” He also testified that no bullet holes were found in the Impala.

Washington stipulated that the FBI was “unable to make a determination either way” as to whether any of the men had come into contact with a recently fired weapon.

Washington also stipulated that Cobb had said in an interview in November 1988 that Beals was wearing his red Adidas jacket when he argued with Johnson. This was contrary to his testimony, and supported the prosecutor’s argument that Beals went upstairs to get a weapon, not his jacket. Washington also stipulated that Yancy had previously described the driver of the getaway car as 6 feet 5 inches tall, light-skinned, 20 to 30 years old, and thin.

During deliberations, the jury asked whether Beals was right- or left-handed, as Antonio had said. Judge Karnezis instructed them to keep deliberating. (Beals is right-handed.)

The jury convicted Beals of first-degree murder and aggravated battery on January 24, 1990. Beals was later sentenced to 80 years in prison.

At his sentencing, Beals said: “I feel sorry for the tragedy that took place like that. I’m innocent. I didn’t do that. I’ve been a student all my life. I’ve worked, and it can be proven. I’ve worked two jobs every summer I’ve come home from school. Played college football, high school football, involved in various organizations for helping younger children. I’ve been a Little League baseball coach. That’s not my character. I didn’t do that that day. And I just feel that the police didn’t investigate the matter properly, and I don’t think the jury took proper consideration to what I had to say or what my witnesses had to say, or they could have seen through the prosecution’s side of the story because the witnesses came in and lied, you know. And I just wanted to say that.”

Beals appealed his conviction, arguing that Washington had provided ineffective representation when he agreed to stipulations that impeached two key defense witnesses, Cobb and Yancy.

The First District of the Appellate Court of Illinois granted Beals a new trial on November 13, 1992. It wrote: “What is particularly damaging about counsel’s stipulations is the fact that trial counsel offered his own professional standing and credibility against the defendant and the defense witnesses. Certainly, we cannot underestimate the impact counsel’s testimony must have had on the jury.”

The state appealed, and the Illinois Supreme Court reinstated the conviction on September 29, 1994. It said that Washington’s stipulation regarding the jacket was unimportant and that his stipulation regarding the description of the getaway driver didn’t actually line up with Beals, because Beals was shorter and heavier.

Nearly 30 years later, Lauren Kaeseberg of the Illinois Innocence Project and Laura Nirider filed a motion for a new trial, asserting new evidence of innocence and misconduct by the police that contributed to Beals’s wrongful conviction. The motion noted that the Cook County State's Attorney's Office Conviction Review Unit (CRU), which had initiated the reinvestigation of the case, had agreed with the relief requested—vacating the conviction.

Johnson had been arrested in 1991 on drug charges, as part of a larger operation that extended from Southside Chicago into the suburbs. In a proffer, he admitted to selling about $3,500 of cocaine a week in the area around the shooting at the time Demetrius was killed.

“The post-trial discovery of Stevie’s contemporaneous involvement in an extensive cocaine ring turns this case on [its] head,” the motion said. “As an initial matter, the rapidly expanding and serious nature of this drug ring explains why Stevie wanted Brian Beals, a college student aiming for a law enforcement career, out of the neighborhood.”

Johnson recanted his trial testimony in November 2023. He said that he knew people were coming to shoot Beals on November 16, 1988. Johnson said the police threatened him and told him to falsely testify to bolster the state’s case. “They were trying to line me up as if Brian was shooting at me but missed,” Johnson said. “But that is not true.”

Lewis recanted in October 2023. He said, contrary to his trial testimony, that Campbell never told him that Beals or a “fat man” was the shooter. He also said that Campbell never said anything about seeing a gun in Beals’s hand as he drove past. Lewis also said that Johnson repeatedly gave Campbell money after the shooting and that she had a significant drug habit at the time. “I want to be clear that I know Brian Beals is innocent,” Lewis said. “He was the one being shot at. I believe Valerie knew she was lying when she said she saw Brian shoot at them.”

Terrell, who had driven Beals home after Beals parked the Impala near his house, said the police arrested him and held him for two days. He said he was slapped and beaten, as the police demanded he implicate Beals in the shooting. Terrell later pled guilty to aiding a fugitive and was given a year on probation.

Allen, who had loaned the Impala to Beals, said in a statement that he examined the car when he returned home to Chicago. He saw bullet holes near the passenger side brake lights and the rear on that same side. He said he told Washington about the bullet holes. Allen didn’t regain possession of the car, but the police had taken photographs. Beals’s attorneys were able to enlarge a photograph of the car’s rear, which confirmed the holes.

“Seemingly because the nature of 1980’s-era photography doesn’t allow the naked eye to see them in the photographs presented at trial, Ptak was able to lie and say there were no bullet holes,” the motion said. “But, certainly the lead detective on the case knew that the police-inspected and photographed vehicle had the bullet holes readily seen by Ron Allen and seen in the up-close zoom of the car.”

In addition, the motion said Ptak testified falsely when he said the testing for gunshot residue took place around three hours after the shooting, leading to inconclusive results. An internal police report date May 9, 1989, said the testing took place within two hours after the shooting. It’s not clear if Washington saw this document.

The motion said that Ptak’s misconduct in the Beals case was similar to his actions in other cases of wrongful convictions. These include: Patrick Hampton, James Kluppelberg, Ronald Kitchen, Marvin Reeves, James Gibson, Matthew Sopron, Nicholas Morfin, and Wayne Antusas. If Washington had known of this pattern of misconduct, it could have been used to impeach Ptak’s credibility on the witness stand.

Separately, the motion included a report from Dr. Geoffrey Loftus, a retired professor of psychology at the University of Washington and an expert on memory and perception. Loftus said Campbell’s identification of Beals was flawed, a result of stress and her unconscious efforts to focus her attention on protecting her family rather than on the event itself.

He wrote: “Valerie Campbell was certainly under tremendous stress during and immediately after the shooting. Thus, Valerie was particularly susceptible to having supplemental information contribute to and affect her memories of the event, whether or not they were accurate. Her identification of Mr. Beals at the trial was likely not constructed from her actual memory of the shooting, but rather reconstructed from confabulated memories and contaminating inferences from police, prosecutors, and her boyfriend Derrik Lewis.”

Pattilyn Beals said in an affidavit that Johnson told her the day after the shooting that he saw Campbell pick up Demetrius and hold him chest to chest as they ran down west 60th Street. According to the motion, this was the “only available explanation as to why Demetrius was shot in the front of his throat even though the family’s backs were to the shooter as they were walking westbound.”

Beals also said she collected statements from several witnesses, whose accounts lined up with Brian’s testimony. Pattilyn said that although several of these witnesses told her that they were threatened to stay out of the case, she still brought them to the attention of Washington, her brother’s attorney. She said Washington seemed not to care. Instead, she said, he made inappropriate advances on her, calling her late at night and telling her there were “things she could do” to make him work harder.

The CRU, which had been presented in September 2023 with the findings of the reinvestigation, did not oppose the motion.

On December 12, 2023, Judge Ursula Walowski vacated Beals’s conviction and dismissed his charges. He was released from prison later that day.

“Relief, happiness, it was just amazing to walk out of there,” Beals told the Associated Press. “I’m ready to begin life again.”

“We rejoice in Brian Beals’s freedom today but his innocence has been apparent for 35 years,” Kaeseberg said. “For far too long the Illinois justice system has failed him—and failed Demetrius Campbell. This case and far too many others like it have eroded police trust in too many Chicago communities.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 1/3/2024
Last Updated: 1/3/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Assault
Reported Crime Date:1988
Sentence:80 years
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No