CHICAGO (STMW) — Hezekiah Whitfield was able to avoid listening to statements Tuesday from loved ones of the man he killed, but he couldn’t escape the sentence of natural life in prison that followed.
Whitfield, 44, convicted of the 1994 murder of Waukegan business owner Fred Reckling, chose to skip his sentencing hearing after being brought into the courtroom and advised that it would proceed without him.
Following victim impact statements from Reckling’s family members and arguments from Assistant State’s Attorney Steve Scheller, who recommended a life sentence, Whitfield’s attorney Gillian Gosch offered a two-sentence statement on his behalf.
“He would want me to say that he is still maintaining his innocence and asking the court to [give] him a minimum sentence. That’s it,” Gosch said.
Scheller noted overwhelming evidence against Whitfield at his April trial, including the discovery at the crime scene of a DNA profile that experts testified matched Whitfield. There also were statements to his former girlfriend and a Chicago police officer in which he allegedly admitted guilt.
Reckling, 71, was bludgeoned to death on the evening of Dec. 8, 1994, during a robbery in his Grand Appliance store in Waukegan. Prosecutors said Whitfield killed Reckling by striking him in the head with the butt of a gun before robbing the store and stealing Reckling’s car.
Scheller said Reckling was “defenseless” in the store, “trying to flee as he was caught between two rows of refrigerators, when the defendant senselessly and brutally beat him to death with that gun.”
Whitfield, of Chicago, was a “violent career criminal,” with prior convictions including robbery, aggravated assault and three armed robberies, all in Cook County, Scheller said. He was on parole when Reckling was killed.
Relatives described Reckling as a family man who loved the Chicago Cubs and traveling with his wife, children and grandchildren.
“My grandfather was a person who would have done anything for anyone. He would have helped a stranger off the street,” said Meagan Gauri, Reckling’s granddaughter. “This is why I will never understand why someone would do this deplorable thing to him. He was a real man with a real family who cares about him. The pain is still there.”
“Fred Reckling was a gentle man and a gentleman,” added his daughter, Kristine Clemens, who said that five of his grandchildren now work in the Grand Appliance chain that he started.
She called the Waukegan store “his second home.”
“The city and citizens of Waukegan lost one of their staunchest fans when he died,” Clemens said.
In sentencing Whitfield to life in prison, Judge Mark Levitt called Whitfield a “violent and dangerous person,” who will always be a threat to society due to his “vile behavior.”
Whitfield was charged with the murder in 2012, after another man had been convicted in the case but was eventually absolved by the DNA evidence.
James Edwards was charged, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder, but those charges were dropped after DNA from the crime scene matched Whitfield. Although Edwards was cleared in Reckling’s murder, he was later sentenced to 60 years in prison for an unrelated armed robbery conviction.
After the sentencing hearing, State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim, who had attended, said he believed the judge’s sentence was “absolutely correct.”
He also said that the family having to go through two separate trials, years apart, for the murder “is hard to imagine.”
“I hope this gives them some peace,” Nerheim said.
(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2014. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)