Guilty as charged

Jury declares Priester a killer

It was a senseless murder, committed not for money or love or drugs or even because of bad driving. And Johnny Ray Priester, convicted of first-degree murder, may spend the rest of his life in prison.

After 34 continuances, eight days of trial and more than seven hours of deliberations, a Sangamon County jury late Wednesday found Priester guilty as charged. Priester, who was 27 when he shot up a house on North 14th Street nearly six years ago, is facing more than 50 years behind bars.
click to enlarge Johnny Ray Priester
Johnny Ray Priester
Johnny Ray Priester

Priester, grim faced, looked like he knew his fate when he entered the courtroom minutes after 11 p.m. He was stoic when the verdict came. While Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Leslie Graves thanked jurors for their service, telling them that they had shown extraordinary diligence, Priester nodded, as if in agreement. In the gallery, friends and family of the late Quinton Harden wept, as did two friends of Priester, who spent more time awaiting trial in the Sangamon County jail than any other inmate ever, so far as jailers can remember.

During trial, it never became clear exactly why Priester became a killer, shooting Harden, 20, in the head and wounding a woman in a leg while firing nine shots into a group of people gathered on a porch shortly after 3:30 a.m. on Memorial Day in 2012. It had something to do with people at the house, where Harden lived, disrespecting the musical efforts of Last Breath Records, a DIY recording label founded by Priester. He was a fledgling rapper with a street name of Cemetery who penned and performed such pieces as “This Rage Burns.”

“He said ‘Y’all gonna learn about playing with LBR,” Shane Thompson, a witness, said that Priester proclaimed before pulling the trigger.

“It’s about whose rap crew is not supposed to be messed with,” first assistant state’s attorney Dan Wright told the jury during closing arguments.

Thompson told the jury that he’d gone to the house to get a tattoo but left after getting into an argument with people who were there. He said he walked nearly a mile to the home where Priester lived on North Eighth Street and rousted him from bed. “I didn’t feel comfortable with the individuals who were with me to fight with me,” Thompson testified. “He (Priester) became enraged.”

Prosecutors had no physical evidence directly linking Priester to the killing, and so the case hinged on knitting accounts of eyewitnesses on the porch with narratives from denizens of the house where Priester lived.

One witness on the porch picked Priester from a photo lineup and another identified him in a live lineup at the Sangamon County jail, but descriptions from the people on the porch ran the gamut immediately after the killing. One said the shooter wore gold plaid shorts, others said he was in black pants. One person said the gunman had his hair in braids. Someone saw an Elmer Fudd style hat and gold teeth where others saw none.

“The descriptions from witnesses, from people on the porch, it was a bit all over the board, wasn’t it?” James Elmore, Priester’s lawyer, asked. “Correct,” answered Stephen Dahlkamp, a Springfield police detective.

Witnesses who associated with Priester were a mix of felons and liars whose stories changed with time. Like people at the house on North 14th Street, people at the home where Priester lived on North Eighth Street were drinking and socializing that night. At first, they told police that Priester couldn’t have been the killer because he had never left the house.

Lastacia Wright, who was Priester’s girlfriend at the time of the killing, testified that she was playing dominoes and cards and drinking in the yard of her home while the defendant slept upstairs, and there was no way that he could have left the house without her seeing him. She acknowledged that her account has changed. She first told police that Priester never left the house. After she was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice, she told detectives that Priester had, in fact, left and had used bleach to clean himself when he returned. That, she told the jury, was a story concocted by Steve Bennett, an associate of Priester’s who convinced her that the Department of Children and Family Services would take her children if she said otherwise. Wright is currently charged with obstructing justice by prosecutors who say that the story she told the jury is a fib.

Wright’s jailhouse interview was the one that resonated with jurors, who asked during deliberations to listen to her taped conversation with detectives. Jurors also asked to hear a recording of Shawanna Underhill’s interview with police. Like Wright, Underhill, who was at the North Eighth Street house, initially lied to police. But she ultimately told detectives that while she didn’t see Priester leave the house, she saw him return, and she and Wright gave him bleach to clean himself. She stuck with that account on the witness stand.

At Priester’s direction, Underhill said she threw live ammunition alongside the road on Enterprise Street, and detectives found cartridges where Underhill said they would be. The ammunition matched shell casings found at the crime scene. Police recovered the gun from a yard where Steve Bennett, a Priester associate, had said he buried the weapon. Proscutors blamed dirt and water for the lack of fingerprints or DNA found on the weapon. The gun and cartridges, while not directly linked to Priester, corroborated the accounts of witnesses, whom prosecutors said were so frightened of the defendant that they initially lied to investigators.

Priester’s lawyer suggested that Bennett or Thompson, perhaps intent on robbery, had pulled the trigger. Prosecutors scoffed. If Bennett was the killer, why would he lead police to the murder weapon? As for Thompson, prosecutors noted that he’d been at the North 14th Street house earlier, before fetching Priester, and witnesses on the porch who had gotten a good look at him earlier in the night said that he stood back when he returned with the gunman.

For the defense’s theory to be true, Bennett and Thompson likely would have approached the house together while Priester was home in bed. During closing arguments, Dan Wright, the prosecutor, showed jurors phone records that showed Thompson had called Bennett at 3:36 a.m., precisely when shots rang out.

“You don’t call someone when you’re standing right next to them,” Wright told the jury. “We’ve got a lot of people who said different things at different times. … Of course we’re not trying to convict an innocent man. We’re trying to convict a guilty man.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at

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