URBANA — A Champaign County jury deliberated about six hours over two days before convicting a man of possessing cocaine and several pounds of cannabis that he pitched out a window when police arrived to search the apartment where he was.
However, James E. Hunt, 40, of Rantoul, who had been present throughout his trial for the better part of three days, took off Thursday morning after learning the jury had reached verdicts but before he could hear them.
Judge Heidi Ladd issued a warrant for his arrest.
Hunt’s attorney, Dan Jackson of Champaign, said he had told Hunt about 10:35 a.m. that they were needed in the courtroom, but neither Jackson nor Hunt knew why at the time. The jury earlier had questions, and the lawyer and client thought there might be more.
Jackson said as they were walking into court with Assistant State’s Attorney Matt Banach, Hunt asked if he had time to use the restroom. Jackson told him to go ahead but to hurry.
As Jackson and Banach sat in court waiting for Hunt, the court security officer informed them the jury had reached verdicts. About that time, Jackson said Hunt called his phone from outside the courthouse. Jackson told him about the verdicts and to return as soon as possible.
“When he found out it was a verdict, he didn’t come in, didn’t answer his phone, didn’t return my voicemail,” said Jackson. “He apparently had already decided to leave the courthouse. The jury comes back with lesser charges that could have gotten him probation.”
After waiting about a half-hour for Hunt to return, Ladd read the verdicts without Hunt being present.
The six men and six women convicted him of the lesser-included offenses of possession of cocaine and possession of cannabis, instead of the more serious possession with intent to deliver those drugs. They also convicted him of obstructing justice but acquitted him of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon.
Hunt faces penalties ranging from probation to four to 15 years in prison on the most serious of the charges for possessing the cocaine. Had the jury found he intended to sell the cocaine, he faced a mandatory prison term of between six and 30 years.
Ladd has not set a sentencing date.
Many pieces of evidence
Testimony in the trial that started Tuesday revealed that Hunt was being investigated by the Champaign County Street Crimes Task Force for alleged drug sales at an apartment at 2409 N. Neil St., Champaign.
On Oct. 25, 2018, about 9:45 a.m., Task Force members went there to serve a search warrant, using the Champaign Police Department’s SWAT unit to make entry.
Police and Hunt both described a noisy, chaotic scene that involved SWAT members knocking, then using a ram to open the door of the third-story apartment when no one answered after 10 seconds.
As the SWAT members confronted the adults inside, other officers outside could see bags being tossed from the southwest bedroom window to a grassy area below.
Champaign officer David Monahan, who photographed the evidence, said the tossed evidence included multiple plastic bags. One contained what a state crime lab expert said was almost 1 ounce (27.5 grams) of crack cocaine, another had about 6 ounces (171.8 grams) of loose cannabis, and about 20 bags contained THC-laced chewable gummies.
Inside the apartment, Monahan said, police found a busted window screen, and a tote filled with chewable THC gummies and another 15 ounces (439 grams) of loose cannabis.
A Task Force officer testified those amounts are far in excess of what a drug user would have but more in line with what a drug dealer would have.
In a dresser near the window were two pellet guns, a 9 mm handgun, a magazine for the gun and two prescription bottles with Hunt’s name on them. Police also found in that bedroom mail addressed to Hunt.
In a kitchen drawer, police found plastic sandwich bags and two digital scales that had white residue on them. And in a kitchen cabinet was a bottle of Inositol, a nutrition supplement commonly used as a cutting agent in cocaine.
Circumstantial ties to Hunt
Champaign police officer Jeff Creel, the first SWAT officer in the door, said Hunt was the only person to come out of the southwest bedroom, and he was shirtless.
SWAT member Jordan Hagemann testified he was outside the building watching the apartment with a high-powered magnifying scope and saw a shirtless man throwing bags out the southwest bedroom window within seconds of hearing that the SWAT officers had entered the apartment.
Hunt testified in his own defense that he was summoned to his former girlfriend’s apartment by her about 6:30 that morning to visit their son. He said he got there about 7:45 a.m., played with his son, then fell asleep with him in the bedroom. Hunt said he was not living at the address.
“The next thing I know is boom, pow. I was incoherent. I was just waking up. I see flashlights and they are telling me to come out,“ Hunt said.
Hunt maintained he knew nothing about the drugs in the apartment and denied throwing them out the window or knowing how that happened. The mail police found addressed to him was either old from when he previously lived with the mother of his child or “planted” by police, he said.
As for the $1,500 cash police found in his pants pocket, Hunt said he had planned to make a down payment on his own place to rent that day. He also denied any knowledge of the 9 mm handgun, the two pellet guns or the prescription bottles with his name on them that police found in the dresser near the window with the busted screen.
Hunt said he had not noticed if the screen in that bedroom where he slept with his son that morning was damaged.
Jackson and Banach stipulated — agreed — to evidence from the state crime lab that neither Hunt‘s fingerprints nor his DNA could be found on the bags tossed from the window.
Jackson argued that police did a thorough job collecting evidence but said none of it was directly connected to Hunt.
The jury deliberated just over four hours Wednesday and about 90 minutes Thursday morning.