SPRINGFIELD — The longest-serving inmate in Sangamon County Jail history was sentenced Tuesday to 85 years in state prison for the 2012 shooting death of a Springfield man.
Johnny Ray Priester, 40, has been in the county jail since May 29, 2012, a day after Quinton Harden, 20, was shot and killed in the 1200 block of North 14th Street. Priester was convicted in March of first-degree murder.
According to authorities, Priester fired nine shots from a .40-caliber, semi-automatic handgun at a group of people on a porch. Witnesses said Harden shielded people from the gunfire. Priester has claimed he was home asleep when the shooting occurred, though witnesses said he was at the shooting scene.
“The defendant is a very dangerous individual. Our community is safer with him behind bars. We are satisfied with the sentence imposed. The victims and their families now have the closure they deserve,” said Dan Wright, Sangamon County’s first assistant state’s attorney.
Prior to Sangamon County Judge Leslie Graves handing down the 85-year-sentence, Beth Harden, Quinton Harden’s mother, told the court how her son’s murder has affected her and the family. She said that since the murder, she hasn’t been able to sleep because she is afraid of getting a phone call from someone saying another one of her children has been killed.
“I stay awake all night. ... I don’t sleep until the daytime and I know they are safe,” Harden said from the witness stand.
Harden said her son was a good person who loved life and loved seeing people happy. He was also the type of person who was always there for his family.
“He was all about family,” Harden said.
After the killing, Harden said her husband gave up on life and quit going to the doctor.
“We lost him last year. He didn’t get to see justice for Quinton,” Harden said.
Harden said that parents teach their children there aren’t monsters, but that isn’t always true.
“Monsters do exist. It was a monster who took my baby,” Beth Harden said.
Priester’s supporters say the wrong man has been convicted for Harden’s murder.
Rochelle Marie Priester said she is Johnny Ray Priester’s wife. She said they are not legally married, but bound through religion. She said Johnny Ray Priester got her off crack cocaine and helped her see her own worth.
Defense attorney Jay Elmore said his client maintains his innocence with every fiber of his being. He added that Priester would also like to see justice for the Harden family.
There’s no easy explanation for why it has taken more than six years and two months between his initial arrest and Tuesday's sentencing.
A review of recent homicide cases in Sangamon County shows inmates typically spend two to three years at the county jail before their cases are resolved.
Priester has rejected at least three plea offers, ranging from 20 to 30 years in prison.
“I’m not going to take a plea bargain for something I did not do,” Priester told The State Journal-Register in 2017.
Lawyers cited a combination of factors in the delays, including the case being continued more than 30 times, witness availability, attorneys becoming ill and the prosecution’s decision to try Priester for a separate case involving a makeshift knife found in his jail cell. He was found not guilty of possessing illegal contraband.
Elmore said Priester was patient when it came to the delays.
“I had a very decent and patient client. Mr. Priester gave me and (defense attorney Mark Wykoff) the time to adequately prepare to protect him,” Elmore said. “Not all people accused of cases like this will do that, but Johnny Ray was an exception. He was decent to us and he waited until we were ready for trial. Judge Graves was very patient, which we appreciate.”
Priester's 85-year prison sentence includes 2,262 days credit for time served in the county jail.